Science, climate change, and technology journalist Devi Lockwood traveled to 20 countries on six continents to listen to and collect 1,001 “lived experience” stories of those feeling the effects of a warming world. A graduate of Harvard, where she studied folklore and mythology, and of MIT’s M.S. program in science writing, Lockwood has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Slate, Yale Climate Connections, and for other outlets.
Her book, “1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought, and Displacement from Around the World,” will be released by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., on August 24, 2021.
Yale Climate Connections: What was your initial objective when you first set out on this multi-year adventure?
Lockwood: The conversation about climate change can feel abstract and distant. I wanted to humanize an issue often discussed in terms of numbers: millimeters of sea level rise or degrees of temperature change. My goal, first and foremost, was to listen – to put stories of climate change in dialogue with each other, giving names and voices to those impacted.
The idea to collect 1,001 stories started as something of a joke. When I was in San Francisco in October 2014, passing through on my way to Fiji, I told Sophie Lee, a fellow cyclist: “What if I recorded a thousand and one stories?”
“You could do it,” she said.
Hearing those words reflected back at me, I decided I would.
YCC: In what ways do you feel you met that objective? And did not?
Lockwood: I did complete 1,001 interviews, around 90% of which are on tape. When I left home, I thought I would be on the road for only a year. But nearing the end of that first year, I realized that I didn’t want to stop. I decided to give myself the creative challenge of traveling without flying, going by boat over oceans, for as long as I could. That lasted about a year.
Originally I also thought I would do the entire journey by bicycle. After a violent experience in Cambodia and discovering that I had an amoeba in my intestine, I made the difficult decision, after being on the road for almost two years, to come home to heal.
At first, I felt like a failure. My plan was to ride my bicycle around the world. But I soon realized I could use this pause as an opportunity to travel to all the places that would be more difficult to visit on two wheels. The unifying metaphor was still there. Cycling, a way of moving. But also, sometimes, caring for yourself, preserving yourself, means learning when to let go.
The trip took its own shape, and I did my best to go with the flow.
YCC: Can you reach back and single out just a small handful of particularly critical voices? Experiences? Fond memories? Bad memories?
Lockwood: Any journey is full of highs and lows. The highs: criss-crossing the Tasman Sea by cargo ship, cycling up and over Arthur’s Pass in Aotearoa New Zealand, seeing the rippling curtain of the northern lights reflected over a lake on a dock in Abisko, Sweden, and so many conversations that left my head full of questions for miles. The lows: getting giardia in Tuvalu, cycling through a monsoon season in Thailand and Laos, learning the precise topography of a panic attack.
It feels nearly impossible to pull out just a few critical voices, but here is my best attempt: Tanea Tangaroa, who is restoring a wetland in Whanganui, New Zealand; Marie Airut, a hunter and elder in Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada, who notes changes in walrus migration patterns; Gertrude Kabusimbi Kenyangi, a Ugandan forestry activist who traveled to COP22 in Morocco to advocate for gender equality in climate solutions; Aidai Turdakunova, a 16-year old student in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who dreams of becoming an environmental engineer.
If you ask me this same question tomorrow, my answers will change. My hope is that each reader will have a different response – that the diversity of voices in the text will lend itself to each person’s finding their own critical voices and layers of meaning.
YCC: With a target of gathering 1,001 climate voices, did you find a need to leave a few, some, on the proverbial cutting room floor?
Lockwood: Yes. The book contains a selection of the whole. I remain grateful for every person who took the time to speak with me. Even if their story is not in the text, their voices informed my thinking.
YCC: If you were about to set out to do it all over again, what are the most valuable “lessons learned” that would prompt you to make changes the second time around? What should other climate writers learn from your experiences?
Lockwood: Stories don’t always come from the most obvious sources. I would challenge other climate writers to redefine notions of expertise. Yes: Climate science is valuable and important. But if we can put that science in dialogue with stories from everyday people who are living with climate impacts, then we have the chance to tell stories that engage readers at the level of values, at the level of story. Individual people are the experts of their own lived experience.
Also: Get outside of major urban areas! In the words of folklorist Keith Basso, wisdom sits in places. There are so many incredible stories, and people, in rural areas, on the proverbial edges. Go to the places between places and listen.
YCC: Is there a final “collective message” from these interviews? Is there a single take-home message you most hope your readers will take with them?
Lockwood: Storytelling is a kind of world-building. We tell ourselves stories in order to survive – to make sense of the chaos of the present moment, and of all the moments that came before. If we take the time to deeply understand the world we have, including all its flaws and imperfections, we can more effectively create the future we want.
Climate change and water are two issues that are so beautifully entangled in everything. The biggest problems are never easy to parse. By slowing down enough to listen, we can begin to unravel the regional and textural complexities in a way that might point us toward solutions.
I believe that we make the world through our actions. In the face of a challenge as large and universal as climate change, we need all kinds of people to listen and join. Yes, it can feel overwhelming. But as long as these stories prompt some kind of shift – no matter how small – then we are moving forward. And movement is what I’m all about.
What can you do? Start where you are. Start small. To quote an organizing toolkit from the People’s Climate Movement: “To change everything, it takes everyone.”