Arts & Culture

Turning climate crisis stories into narrative of the future, changed but still beautiful

Writer Rebecca Solnit offers new view of remaking the world

6 min read
Rebecca Solnit (left) joins HDS Writer-in-Residence Terry Tempest Williams

“I say to you we are making a new world and I believe it can be, in crucial ways, a better one,” said Rebecca Solnit (left), who was in conversation with Terry Tempest Williams as part of Harvard Divinity School’s Climate Justice Week.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Stories can drive action, but perhaps the most damaging climate change story we can tell is the tall tale that we can simply opt for the stability and safety of the status quo, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit said Wednesday evening at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

That’s because there is no status quo, as the effects of climate change are multiplying around us, Solnit said. And those changes are going to keep coming — and worsening — regardless of the path we take. The choice is between the uncertainty of a transition from fossil fuels that results in more manageable changes or to continue on the path we’re on, fostering what are likely to be more sweeping and dangerous disruptions.

Solnit, the author of 24 books, including the recently released anthology “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility,” spoke as part of Harvard Divinity School’s Climate Justice Week, designed to promote thinking around climate justice and highlight the roles that religion and spirituality play in the conversation. The event, “Stories Are Cages, Stories Are Wings — So What Stories Do We Tell About Climate?,” featured Solnit in conversation with Terry Tempest Williams, Divinity School writer-in-residence, as well as a poetry reading and a musical performance of Beethoven.

“Like the chassis of a car or the framing of a house or the skeleton of our own body, assumptions lurk under the stories we tell, giving them their structure or limiting the shapes they can take,” Solnit said. “And one of the biggest, wrongest ones that seems to shape — or misshape — the collective imagination is this idea that there’s an option not to change, and that change is just something we should aspire to or demand, that there’s some sort of stability we can choose instead of changing everything.”

Solnit, who spoke for about 30 minutes and took questions afterward, was described by Williams as “singular, original, defiant, and loving.” Through her work, which spans human rights, women’s rights, the environment, and climate change, Solnit is “building a constituency for change,” Williams said. That effort is continuing with her latest book, “Not Too Late,” which seeks to combat climate change despair and defeatism with stories of hope and change.

Another damaging idea, Williams said in her talk, is that we have to have a perfect solution before we act. People hold up the promise of energy generation by nuclear fusion — the clean source that powers the sun — or of carbon capture and sequestration technology, which will permit continued fossil fuel burning by stripping and storing carbon dioxide from emissions, as ideals that will cause much less disruption to the current energy system.

But Solnit cautioned against letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Instead of waiting for those technologies to mature, she said, we should take advantage of the solutions available now. There has been a revolution in renewable energy in recent decades, with efficiency climbing and prices dropping for solar and wind power to the extent that wind is supplanting coal in the Texas energy grid on the basis of price alone.

Addressing climate change, she said, may best be viewed not as merely achieving a goal, but rather as embarking on a process, one that will best get us where we’re going if we start now, using the tools we have at hand. That means embracing renewables and widespread electrification and then adjusting as we go, as newer, better tools become available.

No solution is perfect, however, including renewable energy sources, which have been criticized because of the mining practices employed in extracting chemicals important for battery production to store the energy. While a real problem, that doesn’t invalidate a strategy that still has significantly lower impact than fossil fuel extraction, Solnit said.

“We don’t know how to get there, but we know to take the next step and the next step,” Solnit said, quoting E.L. Doctorow’s description of writing as an apt analogy: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

A key element of the trip into our climate-changed future, Solnit said, is that it should be taken together. Those who resist change would like us to focus on ourselves, on our individual carbon footprints, despairing of achieving broader change.

But Solnit said the complexity of the world’s natural systems means climate change is, by its nature, a problem of networks and connectedness. Viewing climate change as a collective problem requiring cooperation, imagination, and creativity, she said, gives us the power to devise solutions that lift up those who are disadvantaged in the present, like the billions of global poor, living in places most likely to feel climate-related impacts.

Solnit invoked the Japanese art of kintsugi as an analogy for the future. Kintsugi repairs broken pottery not to its original functionality or appearance, but rather uses golden glue to highlight the breaks, enhance the beauty, and transform the piece into something different, but nonetheless valuable.

“I think that there’s a tendency to think that when something is broken, all it will ever be is shards,” Solnit said. “I’ve used it as a metaphor: Life will happen to you. You won’t be young forever. Sorrow will carve its pattern on our face. If you live, if you love, you will lose. But it can still be beautiful, still be strong, and go forward. The bowl can still hold something. The person can still find beauty, find meaning, have strength.”

Today, Solnit said, we don’t need stories of “the climate crisis” so much as we need stories of meeting the crisis, stories that reframe our view of the decades to come in a way similar to reassembling broken ceramics into something else, something perhaps more beautiful.

“I say to you we are making a new world and I believe it can be, in crucial ways, a better one,” Solnit said.