It is so easy for people to throw trash on the floor, waste food and water and engage in endless consumerism without being truly connected with the Earth around them. Without witnessing a first hand account of the destruction to the natural environment from the persistently damaging habits of society, there is little incentive to change. The scary and all encompassing problems of climate change will devastate the planet indiscriminately regardless, and it is because of this that writer, editor and professor David Gessner decided to embark on a journey that details the need for this understanding amongst the masses.
A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World: Tales of Fire, Wind and Water examines climate hotspots in North America as well as what its inhabitants have to say. Gessner joins host Robert Scheer on this episode of the Scheer Intelligence podcast, where he continues his mission of spreading awareness to one, if not the biggest issue, facing the younger generation. This is an integral theme to the book as it questions what life on Earth will look like when his daughter reaches his age of 62 in the year 2064.
Flash floods, hurricanes and fires encapsulate some of the more catastrophic parts of the book and Gessner hopes that as these natural disasters become more prevalent, people wake up to the realities of the world around them. From wildfires in a place like Paradise, California to floods near his home now in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Gessner sees the path of natural destruction yet somehow people continue to ignore the dangers. What often happens instead, as Gessner says, is a quick turnaround towards rebuilding in an area that is clearly dangerous, with slogans that encourage the community to stay strong and move on.
As a response, Gessner puts it plainly: “sea level rise, increasing intensity of storms, scarcity of resources, things like what we saw in New Orleans after Katrina, people massively leaving.” He says this should “slap people in the face and say, can’t you see that this is bigger than balancing the budget?”
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests, and in this case is David Gessner, a well known, I don’t want to say nature writer, but he discusses that in his book. I know, because he feels that somehow trivializes it. But he’s written a dozen books, bestselling books, a very famous guy, wandered all around national parks and everything. But this book has an urgency to it. It’s called A Traveler’s Guide… Not that the others didn’t, but a particular urgency. A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World. That’s pretty urgent. Tales of Fire, Wind and Water Torrey House Press. Now, he wrote this two years ago basically and in it, he describes a situation where he’s addressing his college aged daughter. I think she was 21 at the time and what will the world be like when she is his age, which I guess is now 61, 62? That would be in the year 2062. And the good thing about this book, by the way, let me make it very clear, it’s a very readable book and it’s not depressing. I have to tell people that every time we talk about, certainly, the end of the world can be very depressing. Nor does he want to offer some simplistic hope notion. He resents that. So we’re dealing with complexity and reality here. Nonetheless. It’s pretty depressing, I have to say. Not the writing, but the prognosis is depressing. I know. I mean, it’s interesting to read, including your own home there, I guess, in North Carolina, where you were a bull’s eye for an oncoming hurricane. And we all have this. You talk about Paradise, California. I’m in Southern California, but not that far away where, you know, the destruction of the town. And your book is really aimed at America. It’s a journey across America, but of course, the worldwide implications are enormous. So why don’t I just leave it to you before I keep babbling here and tell me what you set out to do and I can only say as a reader, you certainly succeeded in alarming me. But go on.
David Gessner: Well, I think you put it really well. I mean, I didn’t want to fall prey to the clichés of the genre, which are pretty well established at this point. I call them the tropes of hope. Either, you know, you see a newscast where the newscaster says, Oh, the ice cap is melting, but look, we have this little solar device, so let’s be hopeful. You have that on the other end, you have the apocalyptic screeds like Old Testament prophets, right? Jeremiah is coming at you saying, we’re going to die right now. And so I wanted to find a way to write about it as literature, you know, not as a bullet point list, not as a hope [indistinguishable], but as saying what was and imagining what would be. You know, you don’t read Dostoyevsky and then go here are some bullet points. You know, don’t be depressed. So I want to kind of help climate change into a new literary age. And you mentioned the title. There’s a little bit of a wink mockery in the title as well. I had an earlier book called My Green Manifesto where I basically made fun of all these, “the end of…,” “The doom of…,” the, you know, “the death of…,” titles that you know, that’s how you get attention, right? You say “we’re all doomed!” And so for me, there was an aspect where I don’t really think it’s the end of the world, but I do think that it’s startling if you get out of your home and start to travel, which I did a year into the pandemic, and everywhere I went, there was a flash flood here, a hurricane there, a fire there. And I was like, should we maybe stop thinking of this as a warning, something off in the future and think it’s here? Here we are in it. And all I wanted to do, kind of, was to bear witness. And, you know, I say at the beginning, there are aspects of the book that are kind of fun. I go into diners and talk to people. I talk to everybody I run into, and that’s not supposed to be what a climate book is. It’s supposed to be policy. I quote Maya Angelou, who says, you know, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
Scheer: So what is the song?
Gessner: Well, the song is a description of what I’m seeing in the world right now and what I’m seeing. You know, whether we want to bicker and argue about, you know, we’re still having climate deniers, is climate change already in full flower, you know, in many places, particularly in the desert southwest and on the coast where I live in North Carolina, where the hurricanes are coming fast and furious.
Scheer: So we know, okay, I’m going to save us a lot of trouble. We don’t care about climate deniers, that’s another discussion. Okay, it’s very obvious that stuff is going on and it’s alarming. And you know the disappearance of coastal communities and everything else. I really would rather get to these diners and everything, the discussion of what you can do about it, because it seems to me… Well, let me start with something provocative. You’ve got really great blurbs for this book from really important people and respect your work as they should. And one of them is Jamie Raskin, who was well known because he was involved in the impeachment proceedings. He’s a very famous lawyer and so forth. And he praises your book and and yet, as a congressman and you look at Congress right now, you look at the world right now, and we’re doing a lot of stuff, including this whole question of Ukraine and now getting Europe to have more weapons and so forth, which seem to be on the path of greater destruction and dependance, actually, upon fossil fuels. Because after all, you have all these weapons systems and so forth. And I just wonder about the disconnect. People admire your work and yet in their lives, and I don’t know, I don’t want to pick on Jamie Raskin, but the fact is, in the work of Congress, they’re really paying very little attention to these destructive forces right now. We’re still going on with business as usual. And indeed, the drums of war are beating louder than they have for some time.
Gessner: Okay. I’ve got a few different takes on that. One is, Jamie wrote me a note one night and said he had insomnia and read the whole book. So I was delighted to get that note. And I think if he weren’t busy saving democracy, he actually does care about environmental issues like Sligo Creek in his district. But he’s got some bigger fish to fry right now.
Scheer: Well, isn’t that the problem there’s always bigger fish to fry. And yet to take the title of your book, The End of the World, and we’re running out of time, why isn’t that the biggest fish?
Gessner: Well, that’s a great question, because as we’ve discussed, you know, as I’m sure you’ve heard, there’s like human evolution of where we’re not really built to think and imagine back to that 2060 date when Hadley’s going to be my age, when my daughter is going to be my age. And one of the things I’m trying to do with the book is get people to imagine, to have empathy, which I don’t think I’ll succeed at, by the way. I mean, I’m a skeptical person, right? But at least I’m going to try to say, think of what you’re doing. You know, this is almost an environmental trope. Roosevelt said it at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Your children’s children’s children. But we can’t get that through our thick, you know, human skulls, right? We’re worried about what our job is today. We’re worried about what we’re going to get for lunch. And that inability is frustrating. So I’m going to push back. You push back on me a little. I’m going to push back on you and say I don’t make claims. I mean, one of the big problems for me is just general arrogance in what we’re dealing with, even the arrogance of those who think they can predict the future. And to me, I would be arrogant to think I can make specific policy suggestions. My job as an artist, I feel like, is to present it. Now, hopefully somebody is going to read it. Like, for instance, my daughter seems to have the activism gene that I don’t have, and she reads it and gets fired up and gives speeches at school and things like that. I’m just a sloppy old writer and I just put down what I see. So I’m maybe not the best person on the policy yet. But I will say this, there’s a really good book called Ministry for the Future. I don’t know if you have seen it, but it’s right back here. It’s by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s called cli-fi. It’s a big cli-fi novel, climate fiction and in it, it’s dismally depressing for about 40 years. And when things finally begin to turn, and granted it’s fiction, it’s because people do what they can do. For instance, the writers write the politicians finally, reluctantly legislate, the monkey wrenchers, monkey wrench, the lawyers sue. And it’s this gradual kind of awakening. I hope to God it’s not that gradual for us, but I can’t help but think it might be. We, like you said, we have this thing, this giant problem in front of us and we spend no time doing it. So I guess if there’s a message in the book, it’s please wake up. You know, it’s like I try to slap people in the face and say, can’t you see that this is bigger than balancing the budget, for instance. We’ve lived a little while, do we think we’re going to get people to do that? I don’t know. I mean, I’m doing my part to present it. Will people listen? I don’t know.
Scheer: Well, but, you know, let’s talk about the actual prediction. Are we talking about the end of the world?
Gessner: No, we’re not talking about the end of the world. We’re talking about the end of human life as we’re living it right now. Look at this kind of rapacious consumer like level and speed. So we’re talking about the end of that. And we’re really probably more frightening since we have some sort of anthropocentric view, you know, human, human, human. We’re talking about wiping out species as we go as well, which is growing at a clip that is horrifying. So, you know, we’re talking about a hotter world, obviously. We’re talking about a more erratic world. We’re talking about a world where, you know, one thing people don’t talk about is air. One of my earlier, you know, I gave creative writing assignments to scientists. I said, please write up a little something. And Cal Tech’s Paul Weinberg was one of the first to come back. And he compared it to when, I’m trying to remember the name of the volcano that… Mount Pinatubo in 1991, after that, there were deep purples and reds of sunsets all over the coast. And he predicted future sunsets like that one when Hadley’s my age and the air thick with particulates. And, you know, already 7 million people a year die of air pollution. And that number is going to go up and up if we keep going the way we are. So there are, you know, and obviously sea level rise, increasing intensity of storms, scarcity of resources, things like what we saw in New Orleans after Katrina, people massively leaving. Unfortunately, they left and went to Texas, where they were soon hit with the next hurricane and flooding. So, you know, the things we already know are probably going to happen. So that’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of our current world. And a deep unsettling which, coupled with political unsettling, which of course we’re in the midst of is pretty frightening, right?
Scheer: By the way, if you could speak a little louder, I’m a little concerned about the volume. Let me let me take this. Okay. Let’s take this question of the quality of air that we breathe and so forth. And your book is basically a journey through America and America is very important because we consume this world. You talk about consumption and so forth. We’ve been the pioneers, certainly in the postwar period of excessive consumption. I remember decades back in the early sixties when you had the population bomb, Ehrlich and people like that. The U.S., which I think then they said we were 6% of the population of the world and we were using 60% of its resources and so forth. Now we have a lot of competition out there, so it’s not quite as stacked. But one place where there’s really been a big problem with the quality of the air and it’s a worldwide problem is China. Where in Beijing and so forth, you have difficulty breathing. Now, they, I thought, were optimistic, they seemed to be swinging heavily towards electric autos. And that may not be the ultimate solution, but at least you can push the pollution somewhere else and not in your major cities. And I thought that was positive but yet now we’re at the same moment almost talking about maybe a war with China and, you know, and then there’s a fear that maybe their population has declined. Will that mean that they’re not going to do well? Well, we used to think population decline was a good thing. Now it’s presented as an alarming thing somehow. I’m just wondering about two old guys here, I’m much older than you, but it’s kind of the discussion takes this irresponsible route always. It’s like we have the alarm of the population bomb of Ehrlich. We’ve known about some of these problems for a long time, and then we actually can sit and chat and say, well, they really aren’t going to do very much or will they? And I just wonder about that disconnect, you know, and maybe you could discuss that. You’ve talked to people in the diners, you’ve been all over the country, and so let’s say Paradise, California, hard hit or, you know, your hurricane area. Do people the morning after then say, yes, let’s do something about it, or do they go about their business?
Gessner: My experience has been that they go about their business. And that, you know, I live in Wilmington, so you got the Wilmington Strong posters and you got Paradise Strong. And everybody starts talking about rebuilding and commerce quickly. Like things have barely shattered and broken and then the talk is of rebuilding. For me, again, this may not be you know, we might have a little disconnect here in that I’m trying to write a book that doesn’t provide the bullet point political answers. And for me, the enemy often is arrogance and ignorance. And what I found, I didn’t find much hopeful, but what gave me hope were the incidents like with Ryan Lambert in Louisiana, where he, a very conservative hunter, fisherman, is working to redirect the Mississippi and rebuild land in, you know, down below New Orleans, in Barataria Bay. And he says, look, the doctor is right there, the Mississippi and the patient. The bay is right here, and I’m going to bring them together and he literally is building land. And he says nature is so resilient. Now, these are just little incidents. And I know they don’t add up to saving the world. But for me, for instance, standing, straddling the Colorado River at its source where it’s about two feet wide and realizing nature is the source of this water that gives 40 million people in the west their water, the Colorado. To me, there’s a disconnect, the real disconnect is between knowing that we’re animals in a habitat just like, you know, mountain lions are and birds are, and that we’re despoiling our habitat that we’re in. And when I feel connected, you know, to a more elemental life to wind water, to birds, to animals, I can be, if not hopeful, just kind of feel more connected to the world where we’re getting things from this world that we’re destroying. And to me, when we see things like Paradise and the hurricane, I wouldn’t go as far as, I’m not like an Old Testament prophet, I’m not going to say we feel the wrath of nature. But it’s just interesting to me that both the solution and the problem are in this world that many of us just completely ignore. I mean, we live in a time where the virtual is king, right? And what I’m talking about is the actual and the elemental. So it’s not exactly a political answer and I apologize for that. And I do say in the preface that my knowledge is walking and traveling across this country. You can extrapolate to the world, you know, but my knowledge is weak when it comes to the larger world. And I’m just focusing on the micro and what I see as I go. And also my daughter’s kind of mindset. It’s really interesting to me that it’s an active part of her imagining, and it is for many people. The Lancet, the medical journal, did a study of 10,000 kids from 20 countries, and the vast majority said that climate anxiety is part of their life. Climate anxiety is real to them in the way it may not be to you and me. You know, we didn’t grow up with it. And so to me, it’s like empathizing with the people of the future and trying to think what are the solutions? Of course, they’re political solutions, of course they’re, you know, alternative energy and not consuming as much. But I also think it’s a disconnect from the actual world, from the physical world. And for me, the most hopeful parts of the book, when I was on the Mississippi, when I was straddling the Colorado, when I was talking to people on the beaches after the hurricanes and so I don’t think I can offer what people want, but that’s what I got out of my trip.
Scheer: Okay and I respect that and I think you’re absolutely right about the generational difference. I teach at a college as well. And there’s no question that a whole generation now gets it. At the same time…
Gessner: At the same time we have 80 year olds running for office against each other.
Scheer: Yeah, well, but aside from that, there is also this phrase you used before about the consumerist culture. These same young people are subject to the same kind of advertising and consumption. And get yours and buy, buy, buy.
Scheer: And isn’t that… I mean, yes, even older people can be thoughtful in the middle of or facing a hurricane or in this community of Paradise we haven’t really identified in California that was visited with, you know, the horrible things that have happened from climate change. But what works against… Well let’s talk about your tension with your daughter? I mean, I’m not saying you have a personal tension, this healthy tension that is in your book. How do we preserve the idealism and innocence? If it is, or the clarity of your daughter in a world that will do its best to obliterate that clarity by consumption and want and right? I mean, that’s the culture. How do you preserve that or how do you enhance it? How do we have more like your daughter and fewer people like us?
Gessner: Oh, that’s a good question. I think, unfortunately, we have an acceleration of disaster. You know, I think that at times there have been some responses. I mean, Katrina was an eye opener, right? Sandy was another one bringing it right to New York City. I think a good media center hurricane will help.
Scheer: For a matter of days or weeks.
Gessner: For a matter of days though there was some reclaiming of land and there was an attempt to say we’re not going to rebuild. And there and there have been a few instances like that. There’s a famous storm that hit Topsail, Topsail Island not long before I got here, and they were barely getting the words “Topsail Strong” out when the second storm hit. And, you know, that’s an indicator that you can’t rebuild on the train tracks. As my friend Orrin Pilkey, the Duke coastal geologist, said when we traveled through New York. So there are going to be more wakeup calls, right? On the other hand, of course, people who deny—and we’re not talking about the deniers—are going to point out that we just had the snowiest winter in the West since I graduated from college. And the drought, I was just out there walking through a couple of feet of snow in May, and we’re going to have some nice water this summer. It’ll be a green summer, but of course, that doesn’t stop the overall trend toward drought. So I don’t know. I don’t know how we do that. Maybe there will be people of that generation who recognize it as the issue. It is, though, a Gallup poll recently said that 3% of people think it’s the most important issue we face.
Scheer: Well and you know that that is the problem, you know, let’s take the drought, you know, because I live in California. We’ve been hearing about the drought. And then you have these people doing farming and a lot of it industrial farming and some of the planting like walnuts as something that’s brought up how much water it takes to grow walnuts or almonds? Almonds would be a better example really, than walnuts, sorry. And yet now this summer, everybody’s going to think, hey, let’s go and continue this kind of agriculture. And in your book, you talk about this phenomena of rebuilding. You know, disaster happens, cliffs collapse, and then people want to build on the same cliff. You know, let’s just all let’s roll up our sleeves and these slogans you mentioned where you are living or in Paradise. You know, what, build back better or something. How do you deal with that?
Gessner: Well, I have a question. How are you going to deal with it? Because there’s so much snow that you can get ready for some flooding where you are. You know, I mean, that’s what we’re getting is this moving between extremes, right? So I live in a place where every summer, around August 1st, we get anxious because we know what’s coming. The season is coming just as in California and other parts of the West, the fire season is coming. The problem with the fire season, of course, is that it’s expanded to include the whole year, at least in drier years, not this year. For instance, Colorado had its most destructive fire on the last day of the year. The year I was traveling and New Year’s Day things were burning. But there’s this anxiety that’s understood, that becomes kind of part of the yearly cycle. And I think in the Northeast, they’re going to start having that more as the hurricane season expands. How do I deal with that? Pretty much like everybody else, I put on blinders and then when it comes, the blinders come off. But pretty quickly, I have my teaching to do and my job to do in my running. I’m no better than anybody else. Maybe we need a visionary.
Scheer: Well, let me ask you about that.
Gessner: I’m not a visionary, we need one.
Scheer: Let me just end then, if we could wrap it up with a visionary, because there is a vision in this book and the vision is you don’t want to just scare people and you don’t want to have false hope and you don’t want to be… The book has a wonderful tone to it, of reality and hey, you know, we threw a lot of things and there are solutions and things can be worked out. But I want to put a little bit of an edge on that. Is it possible that the dominant world culture and let me sound like a preacher here. The dominant world culture of consumption, the stress on advertising because the places you like, the natural, of that your other books are about protecting, you know, areas or where we can keep the earth as it once was, where you can protect wildlife and so forth. All of that basically requires a limit on the consumption, the excess and the constant pushing of consumption. And let me ask you to take a stab at that. Because what will happen—I don’t want to be pessimistic here—but generally we have these younger people who get it and then they will be marketed to with an intensity of you must have more of this and that and that and that. And isn’t that really the big enemy worldwide? I’m not just blaming now the United States, although we were the center of much of that consumption frenzy. Isn’t that the real tension? Are you going to walk in Teddy Roosevelt’s natural preserve and say, keep it this way? No, are you going to subdivide it and build bigger houses? Why don’t we end with that?
Gessner: I think that, you know, the patron saint of my tribe, Mr. Thoreau, I was saying back in the mid 1800s, that limits and restraint are the key here. And it’s just not a consumer culture where excess is celebrated, right? I mean, it’s how are we going to make holding back and not doing as much as valued as gobbling up and doing more. And that is a huge challenge. I mean, we’ve done it at certain times in war, right? And we’ve managed to do it, but I think there has to be an aspect of war footing if, you know, if the tragedies and emergencies come fast and furious. I can imagine… Here’s what I say in the book, a heron or egret doesn’t stay still and quiet because it likes patience. It stays still and quiet because it wants the fish. That’s why it’s patient. And so there has to be an urgency behind restraint and patience and these old values, that isn’t there now. But perhaps in the face of tragedy and emergencies can be valued again. I grew up reading, I read Thoreau, but I also read Kurt Vonnegut. You know, I’m not a flaming optimist. I see it as a huge challenge that may not be met, but I know that we’re facing it. And I’m trying to just say, here it is, Here’s where we are now and let’s picture where we will be. I’ll leave it to better minds than me to then go out and do something about it.
Scheer: Yeah, but what you do accomplish, the book is A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World: Tales of Fire, Wind and Water. But it’s also tales of ordinary folks who get it, who care, who want to do something about it and that is a source of optimism. And of course, no one more so or maybe typically so of such people, is your daughter and hopefully a new generation. So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts. I want to thank Diego Ramos for writing the intro, Max Jones for setting up the technique and most of all, our executive producer Joshua Scheer and the JKW Foundation for providing funding for this. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.