Elizabeth Rush and book cover

I launched my monthly “Burning Worlds” column in February 2017, in the Chicago Review of Books, to explore how writers of contemporary fiction – novelists, poets, short-story authors – are addressing climate change. This month, I’m shaking things up with an interview with a different kind of storyteller.

You might remember Elizabeth Rush, a visiting lecturer of English at Brown University, from an earlier interview, wherein she recommended some of her favorite works of cli-fi after teaching a course on the subject. Now she has released her latest book-length work of creative nonfiction, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. It combines testimonials, investigative reporting, and personal narrative to tell the story of how America’s coastal communities are adapting (or not) to sea-level rise.

Rising lets the people who are experiencing sea-level rise firsthand speak their own truths. They teach us how it feels to know your home is threatened, the future uncertain. Rising is a thoughtful, fascinating, and often deeply moving look at some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, and one of my favorite books of the year. I thought it deserved space in this column.

Rush is currently on book tour, but she took time away from her busy schedule to speak with me about what it was like to meet the people she wrote about in Rising, how language is key to understanding a place, and why climate change continues to impact the world’s impoverished communities hardest.

Book cover

Amy Brady: I want to start by quoting you. In the introduction to Rising, you write, “The language we use to narrate our experience in the world can awaken in that the knowledge that transformation is both necessary and ongoing.” Can you expand on this idea?

Elizabeth Rush: I’ve always thought of myself as an experiential learner. I like to immerse myself in a place to get a feel for it over a period of time, and I’ve found that by doing so, I get a feel for the very specific languages the people who live in these places use to describe their homes. Often it’s language that we, as outsiders, don’t necessarily have access to. For example, I recently learned about the ecosystem of wetlands. When I went and experienced these places firsthand, I started to pick up on the words and linguistic patterns of the people who live there. That process helped me see [those people and their land] in ways what I couldn’t see previously. Also, language can help us see the effects of environmental change. The average American citizen’s environmental vocabulary isn’t really robust right now, so in order to be able to see the changes taking place we need to learn the names of plants, animals, and the phenomena that are causing these changes.

Amy Brady: Early last year the New York Times ran an article about how midwestern farmers – who tend to vote conservative – are willing to discuss the facts of climate change as long as the phrase “climate change” isn’t used in conversation. The phrase immediately turns the conversation political.

Elizabeth Rush: Hate speech related to climate change is on the rise in communities all around the country. When choosing interviews to include in Rising, I deliberately picked those with people who identified as Democrat, Republican, and none of the above. I wanted to incorporate voices across the political spectrum. What I found – and this was particularly true in rural communities – is that the words “climate change” sound political and don’t necessarily map onto people’s lived experiences. If your family has lived on an island off of coastal Louisiana for hundreds of years, then the generations have likely watched the ground beneath their feet literally start to disappear beneath the sea. But “climate change” remains an abstract term to describe their experience. I found that the best discussion came about when I stopped forcing my own discourse into the forefront of conversations and let people describe in their own words how they see what’s happening.

But at the same time I do think it’s important to think about the political influence on this term. Am I okay if Trump wipes “climate change” out of National Park Service documents? Just as we give residents the right to use the language that they think speaks most directly to their experiences, I think that we also have to trust and value the language that scientists want to use to describe this phenomenon. When they’re speaking for themselves about their own research, I think it’s significantly hampering to tell them that they can’t use the terms that their field of study has agreed are worthwhile.

Amy Brady: In a couple of sequential chapters we meet Chris in Louisiana and then Laura in Maine. Both of their stories end with them saying they don’t want to leave their homes – no matter how bad sea-level rise might get. What have you learned about this impulse to stay no matter what?

Elizabeth Rush: I think that those are two really interesting examples. Laura is actually a colleague of mine, and she told me that if she felt a responsibility to pass this land to a future generation then she might not be able to make the same decision. Chris eventually does leave his house. He said, “I could stay on the island, and be just fine.” But he’s become the caretaker for his brother’s children. His brother passed away maybe almost a decade ago now, and he feels the responsibility to provide economic security for the children he’s adopted. So, it’s fascinating. I completely understand the desire to stay in a place, especially when that place defines you. I do think that that question will come up more and more as people are forced to consider their financial bottom line. We’re in this moment where coastal dwellers are starting to begin to understand that their properties might not be worth the same amount in the future.

Amy Brady: All through your book we see how sea-level rise is affecting – and will continue to affect – impoverished people at much higher rates than wealthy people. Why is this?

Elizabeth Rush: There are many answers to that question. One thing I discovered that I hadn’t at all been aware of before writing this book is the history of people living in wetlands. So, Fresh Kills Landfill in New York City, which was for a very long time the largest landfill in the world, is built atop tidal wetlands. Throughout the early history of colonial expansion in the U.S., a lot of indigenous groups that were conflicting with colonial violence would seek [these wetlands] out. They weren’t considered desirable land. They’re also fairly easy to defend and difficult to attack, which is why you see a history of runaway slaves and Maroon communities living in wetlands. By the 1940s and 50s, when the shipping boom started to wane, the wetlands were redeveloped as residential spaces. And it was primarily low and middle income families that moved there because, again, they weren’t super desirable spaces. They were flood prone and often next to polluted water bodies.

Amy Brady: Is the restoration of wetlands to their natural state a viable means for combating climate change?

Elizabeth Rush: I think in the short term, absolutely. In the long term, well, it’s not going to save all of Boston, or New York City, or San Francisco. I spoke to a coastal geomorphologist who’s been doing research on sea-level rise for two decades. He put it really well when he said something along the lines of, “Wetlands restoration is important because it buys all of us time.” We have to wrap our minds around the fact that humans, plants, and animals are eventually going to have to retreat from some of our lowest lying coastal lands, and we need to do it in as egalitarian a manner as possible. Wetland restoration gives us time to think through it without having to retreat immediately.

Amy Brady: Your book introduces us to Dan from Florida, who says that he thinks it’s “bullshit” that technology will save us. What do you think?

Elizabeth Rush: I think we need to give up this dream that we can design our way out of sea-level rise. It’s not going to save us. We have to come back again to the question of equity. Take a look at Miami, which has invested something like $500 million in street-raising projects and to pump out flood water. Big sections of Miami’s beaches are already underwater with every high tide, so the city is basically investing in these floodwater pods that remove water and put it back in the bay. I think that should speak for itself in terms of whether it’s a viable long-term solution.

But, okay, so that keeps the beaches relatively dry, for now. But where are all the people who work on the beach supposed to live? Where do the folks who work in the hospitality and restaurant industries live? They certainly can’t afford the beach. They’re living in low-lying coastal communities that are ringed around the beach but don’t have access to those solutions. So, yes, technology could save select slivers of the population that can afford it, but it’s not a viable solution for everybody.

Amy Brady: Why did you decide to include chapters from the points-of-view of your interviewees?

Elizabeth Rush: The “testimony sections” are written entirely in the voices of the people I interviewed. I really involved them in the process of transcription and editorial work, always showing the results to them to get their feedback. It was a collaborative process where my responsibility was to the speaker and to their lived experience. So, in a way, I thought of this project as a way to give these people a microphone. I wanted to get across to my readers how I felt listening to these people’s stories while I sat in their living rooms. They would tell me about the history of flooding in their neighborhood, and how it was changing their idea of what home was. I don’t think that anything I could add as a writer would make their stories more profound. I wanted readers to hear these stories from their source.

Amy Brady: Are you hopeful for the future?

Elizabeth Rush: Yes and no. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t deeply anxious about the future. In particular, I go back to this stunning realization that half of the endangered and threatened species in the United States are wetlands dependent. I think culturally we have a long way to go to get to a place where we can really think about how to help an entire ecosystem transform. Historically, wetlands migrate up and in, as sea levels rise. But we’ve built up all along the back edges of many of them – so there’s no place for them to go, which means the species that live there also have no place to go. And we’ve already discussed how low-income coastal communities are in a similarly precarious and vulnerable position.

But on a more positive note, I think part of what surprised me while writing this book is how a greater awareness of climate change has resulted in more attention paid to places where our lives unfold. In a lot of coastal communities, residents haven’t been all that aware of even some of the most fundamental threats to their communities. Now they’re starting to pay attention. I also think people in general are starting to pay more attention to the environment. That’s a source of hope for me as well.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush, Milkweed Editions, published June 12, 2018.

Elizabeth Rush’s journalism has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, Harper’s, Guernica, Granta, Orion, and the New Republic, among others. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants including the Howard Foundation Fellowship, awarded by Brown University; the Andrew Mellon Foundation Fellowship for Pedagogical Innovation in the Humanities; the Metcalf Institute Fellowship; and the Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University and her BA from Reed College. She lives in Rhode Island, where she teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University.

Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.