Author and creative writing professor Nicole Walker’s recent book Sustainability: A Love Story is a freewheeling tour of the things we all think about when we’re trying to do the “right” thing for the environment. We weigh the relative merits of cars versus bikes, plastic verses paper, beef verses kale, while secretly dismayed by the discordance between the life we imagine and the one we’re actually living. We want to believe small, individual choices matter, while we’re overwhelmed by the enormity of climate change.
Walker does not offer a path forward so much as a meandering path through the mess: a stubborn refusal to turn away from the questions, a darkly humorous look at looming disaster.
Walker is the author of six books, as well as the forthcoming book A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins and the just-released The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on Climate Change. She is a professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and has been the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I spoke with Walker on an unexpectedly snowy spring day at an outdoor patio in Flagstaff, in sight of a long line of idling cars waiting to order coffee from a Dutch Bros. Coffee kiosk.
Melissa Sevigny: So I was down in a local bookstore and I saw your book Sustainability on the shelves, and there were several copies, and they were shrink-wrapped in plastic. I wanted to ask you about that.
Nicole Walker: That’s a really good question. So I called the publisher and I said “What is this?” and she said, “We didn’t know the printer was going to do that.” They’ve made a commitment to never do it again. So even though it was ridiculous for my particular book, it also I think embodies a lot of the things I’m talking about in the book, which is: it feels impossible a lot of the time. Everything you do feels like one step forward, two steps back. Everything you do feels a little bit hypocritical and a little bit like a disaster.
Melissa Sevigny: That irony really struck me, because your book is about how we can talk about sustainability, we have this idea in our head of what sustainability looks like, but it’s just really hard to do.
Nicole Walker: It is. People do such a better job than I do. Peter Friederici, a freelance science journalist here in Flagstaff, cuts his own wood. He does the Thoreau version: “It warms me twice, once when I’m chopping it and once when I’m burning it.” He rides his bike to work. There are these amazing people I hold up as role models. But then I see, what the heck is up with the Dutch Bros.?
Melissa Sevigny: The coffee shop right here?
Nicole Walker: They sit in their car and wait in line for days.
Melissa Sevigny: Right, idling!
Nicole Walker: Idling and blocking traffic and waiting for their plastic cup of coffee. I think the problem with climate change is it’s such a big idea people can’t wrap their brains around it. And if they can, they think it’s so big they can’t do anything about it. Or, if they do one thing, it doesn’t matter, it’s not going to add up. I really want to believe in this idea—I don’t know if it’s going to work in the end, if it’ll save anything—but there is this personal cap-and-trade program, where you’re like: Okay, I really love to wait in line at Dutch Bros. (I don’t, personally. I think it’s a strange business: who has an hour to wait for coffee? But people do that). Say you really love Dutch Bros. that much. But then you do something else to make up for that, like you only eat vegetarian or you never buy plastic again. I think you have to give yourself a break, or the depression sets in and you feel like you cannot make any impact. You’re disempowered to make any changes. I feel like if you make little changes all along as you go—like, one of my favorite things now is the beeswax wrappers instead of cellophane. They’re doing two things at once, they’re helping to save bees, reminding us how important bees are, plus you’re getting this beeswax wrap paper that you put on vegetables and you feel like it’s pure. That feeling of doing a little bit of good every day, it makes me feel less desperate. It is not necessarily going to save the world. But it will at least keep me from falling into a pit and burying myself in the woods from depression.
Melissa Sevigny: Do you think about that in the context of writing a book? I mean, there’s an environmental cost to writing a book—not just the paper it’s on, but the research you’ve done, the travel you’ve done. How do you weigh that?
Nicole Walker: And the travel to the readings to get the book out there. It feels completely ironic, and not functional. It’s not sustainable. But I also think: What are we trying to sustain? I write in the first essay in the book, what’s sustainable to the crawfish is not sustainable to the otter. The otters like to eat you, little crawdads! You have to have a sense of immediate pain and long-term pain. I guess, as a naïve little dream, by getting the book out there I’m spreading the word and making these connections with people who want to do something bigger, something besides little individual changes, who want to fight for change. What the book is primarily about is this: we’re not going to make substantial change until we’re able to see other people’s points of view and connect with them. My hope is the book makes up for its carbon footprint by making people aware and also getting them to believe that if we work together, believe together, see things together, we can make some change. Because real change is going to take a huge paradigm shift. It’s going to take all of us thinking in the same way.
Melissa Sevigny: Tell me about the title, because that’s rather audacious to use a word like sustainability which means so much and at the same time so little. Did you have any doubts about that?
Nicole Walker: The title itself is meant to be ironic. The book is a lot about sustainability, but the subtitle A Love Story is as important as the title, because being angry at everyone around you for drinking their Dutch Bros. and idling their cars makes you a small and bitter person. It convinces you that your point of view is the right one. This is something I have trouble with in the environmental movement in general: it can be very earnest and sometimes self-righteous. I can be very much self- righteous. I do this thing when people are idling their cars where I go up to them and turn my hand, like turning a key off. Nobody knows what I’m doing and I look like an insane person. End of the planet! We’re all going to die! Nobody listens. That small, bitter, self-righteous part of me; that is not the part that’s going to help change the world. It’s the part that says: Okay, you might be driving your Hummer but maybe you did go to the forest this weekend to plant a thousand trees, or maybe you never buy new clothes and you only shop at thrift stores.
There are other threads in the book. There’s this long thread about how I get along with my husband who is sometimes a total dork, and myself, the narrator, who is sometimes mean. There’s this thread about drug addiction and suicide. Why would you put those in a book about sustainability? But those are the things we’re trying to sustain. We’re trying to sustain our relationships, our lives, our sanity, and trying to sustain the planet. All of those don’t necessarily connect. That’s why, as you say, the word “sustainability” is so ubiquitous and also so almost meaningless. But if you look at each individual example of sustainability, then you can say for this kind of sustainability I’ll do this, and for this kind of sustainability I’ll do something else. But each one of those requires thinking a little bit differently, a little bit less selfishly, a little bit putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
So it all comes together in admitting that I’m not always right. I’m not always seeing the larger perspective or other people’s points of views. There’s this essay in the book about David Foster Wallace: right before he kills himself, I try to put myself in his shoes, imagining what it was like for him. I have a chapter about Phillip Seymour Hoffman, about how he couldn’t get out of his own addiction. It’s not that this is a guidebook for that. But it is a guidebook for sustainability. If you know people who have addiction problems, or if you and your husband have locked horns a lot lately, that is similar to this feeling of being trapped and trying to save the planet and feeling like you’re a hypocrite and feeling like it’s all for naught. How do get out of this situation and push yourself in new directions?
Melissa Sevigny: Those connections about gun violence, for example, or suicide or addiction, did you know going into the book that those were all related, or did they arise as you wrote?
Nicole Walker: They arose as I wrote. I want to know more about science and the real impacts that we’re feeling about climate change. I like to observe the forest and panic every six days about the weather: it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s not raining enough. But that was not the human thread that I wanted. I really wanted to know what happens when push comes to shove. I guess that’s the consequence of climate change. At some point, push will come to shove. But it’s also true for addiction, that sense of hitting bottom. Is that what we’re going to have to do for climate change—hit bottom?
Melissa Sevigny: You talked about telling that human story, and for you clearly that means writing a lot about your family and especially your children. Do you ever worry that you’re co-opting your children’s story or invading their privacy? Some of those scenes are very intimate.
Walker: It’s funny, the older they get, the more I worry about it. When they’re little and they can’t tell their own story yet, then I think it’s okay. I’m representing them. I also get their approval to some degree. I read it to them. I say: I’m talking about that story, is it okay to use it? But I’m writing a new book about school choice and it’s really focused on my daughter. I do want her to have that opportunity to go through it and make those editorial choices and say this is not how it went, or that’s not how it saw it.
I do think writing is a collaborative process. My husband hates that I write about him. But he respects that it’s an art and he rolls his eyes but he doesn’t say no. The kids, if they wanted to say no, I would listen to them. The connection is so important because climate change is not going to hit me like it will hit them. They’ll be the ones to deal with mass migration and droughts and starvation, things that are really scary. I think by mentioning them, maybe it’s a pre-apology of a sort. “I tried. I didn’t do much.” No matter what you do, a single person can’t do enough.
Melissa Sevigny: Do you think sometimes writers use their children as foils, you know: “I automatically care about climate change because I’ve got children.” Where does that leave the rest of us who don’t have children?
Nicole Walker: People who have no children are really doing the most for the environment. Every single human being especially in the United States contributes so much greenhouse gases and plastic waste, all kinds of waste. I mean, having children is a disaster in and of itself. It took me a while to decide to have kids. I come at it with this sense of guilt: “I’m sorry, I have children.” But I do have a little bit of hope that they’ll be the ones—I guess you always put that on them—they’ll save it, they’ll find some plastic eating microorganisms or have some great invention where one tree sucks up 200,000 pounds of carbon per minute. I believe in my kids. I believe in other people’s kids, too. But I think that sense of “my kids are the reason we have to save the planet” is grotesque. The reason we have to save the planet is for the other creatures that have no voice and no opportunity to make collective sorts of change.
Melissa Sevigny: The style of your book is this sustained lyric essay, it’s almost stream-of-consciousness. What drew you to writing in that way?
Nicole Walker: Sometimes I try to write straight narrative, and it ends up not sounding like my voice, and it’s a bit pedantic trying to explain things to people, and maybe didactic. The sentences that try to build an argument end up coming off more as a lecture than an experience. I want the book to feel like an experience. I resist the term “stream of consciousness” because I do employ a lot of structural devices. But there is a wildness to the design, because I want that sense of de-familiarization: “What is this? I’ve never seen this before. I can’t believe I’m seeing this.” I want the writing to feel like that sometimes. It can’t feel like that all the time. But I also have some organization principles where things come back and tie back in, so it’s not just 0 to 60, every idea Nicole’s ever had. We’re going to talk about forest fires and grass for a while, and then suicide comes back in different forms, and the argument with my husband. That’s a main narrative thread, Erik and I figuring out where the Tupperware lids went and whose fault that is. So I want to make this book feel like you’re getting pulled into this experience, into some sort of wilderness, but by the end you can look back and see it all fits together, that there is some order. Just like an ecological system, you look at the various parts and it seems a little bit wild, but then you look a bit beyond and it all connects and all the pieces come together and everything relies on everything else. I want the book to have that organic, ecological feeling to it.
Melissa Sevigny: How do you handle research? You’ve got statistics and quotes and whole pieces out of the dictionary worked in there. It feels like it’s just in the moment, coming to your mind.
Nicole Walker: I’m a big fan of the braided essay, where you go back and forth between a personal story and the research. What’s great about the braided essay is you’re writing about yourself for a while, and they you say: okay, that’s enough narcissism for one day, and also sometimes you hit the end of that particular story. Personal narrative is great if you can couch it in something bigger. So I’ll get to the end of the paragraph and ask: What are some of the words in that last sentence that are provocative and interesting enough to make a bigger connection? Then I’ll go to the library and do deep research, and I’ll go to Google and do light research. What I really love about that idea of trying to build an ecological, organic kind of writing, is that sort of happenstance is how evolution works. A little mutation here and there is how you get to some new species, some new symbiosis with two organisms. To me getting the research to work with the personal narrative is the difficult part. Finding the research is just fun.
Melissa Sevigny: Do you ever run into anything that forces you to change your narrative?
Nicole Walker: Totally. All the time. Sometimes the research is disappointing. I have this one essay about how I just believe mushrooms are going to save us. I’m big fan of mushrooms, I’ve been hunting mushrooms my whole life. So what’s going to save us? We’re going to be able to sink all our carbon into the ground thanks to these mycelium that grow these mushroom bodies. It’s fine, it does work for a little bit, but then the mushrooms die and the release the same amount of the carbon that they were storing. It’s like that, you know? That changes the personal narrative because I’m trying to have a happy story and this one does not end up happy. But then there’s some good stories, too, like this one about whale poop. Now that that humpbacks whales have resurged in population, there’s more whale poop, and the more whale poop there is, the more plankton there is, the more plankton there is, the more carbon is absorbed. Unlike the mushroom problem, once the carbon is absorbed it falls to the bottom of the ocean and isn’t released back to the atmosphere. So the more whales, the better.
Melissa Sevigny: That’s the perfect example of a question I wanted to ask you, because a lot of times with environmental books you can slot them into categories: here’s an optimist or here’s a pessimist. Your book, I could never make up my mind. I couldn’t decide.
Walker: I do hope at the end it comes off as somewhat hopeful. It’s almost gallows humor, but a little bit happier than that. Maybe people will get it together, and even if they don’t, maybe we can appreciate the attempt of people trying to get it together, trying to make some positive change, to connect with other humans and save them from themselves, and save ourselves from ourselves.
Melissa Sevigny: You sound like you can’t decide either.
Nicole Walker: Okay, okay!
Melissa Sevigny: But a lot of us do that, right? We collect all this research that depresses us, but then we say there must be some hope, because I got out of bed this morning and sat in front of the computer and started to write.
Nicole Walker: And writing does feel like a kind of hope to me. Writing feels like you’re putting a message into the future. If you’re doing that, you must have some sense that there will be a future, and people will read this. And you know how few people read any more, you know how bookstores—well, they’re doing a little better—but how bookstores suffer and everyone’s on Facebook all day. But just to believe that this book is worth putting energy into, is the same kind of belief as: It’s worth collecting trash on the side of the road. It’s worth using cloth bags instead of plastic, for some reason, even a moral reason, maybe. Sometimes I wonder about that: if they come up with an immediate carbon-fixing project, or they come up with a kind of plastic that dissolves, I think that’s morally not okay. Humans need to get their shit together and stop consuming things and wasting things.
Melissa Sevigny: We all write from the slice of experience that we have—in your case, female, white, middle class—and I’m wondering whether you are inspired by or influenced by writers who come from other backgrounds or experiences?
Nicole Walker: Yes! I made it a mission to mostly read writers of color lately. I just read Tommy Orange’s There There and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir. I read Camille Dungy, a poet who just won a Guggenheim. Of course the interest is always a selfish one. But I want to make a connection there between climate change and marginalization or marginalized people. I’m reading Navajo, Diné, writers, and working with some people on Hopi, because a perspective I’m missing about climate change comes from being privileged and living in super white places—I grew up in Salt Lake City, I lived in Portland, Oregon. Flagstaff is the most diverse place I’ve lived in and it’s not the most diverse place in the world. But it does have influence from the Navajo Nation, which is one way to get out of my own perspective.
Melissa Sevigny: What is your next project?
Nicole Walker: My book The After-Normal with David Carlin is coming out this month. We started with the idea from Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble. The idea is, bad things are happening and glossing over them is not very useful. Also sitting in them and getting really depressed is not very useful. But sitting in the moment, recognizing the bad things but also that there are good things—you have to have a little bit of hope. This book is an abecedarian. David Carlin lives in Melbourne, Australia, and I live in Flagstaff, Arizona, and we go through each letter of the alphabet and write back and forth to each other. So his A is Atmosphere, and my A is Albatross. We stich together from opposite sides of the globe some understanding of how we could see climate change from a new perspective.
Melissa L. Sevigny is the interviews editor for Terrain.org. She is the author of two nonfiction books about science and nature: Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016) and Mythical River (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.