Advocating Now: An Interview with Elizabeth Rush

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In Elizabeth Rush’s stunning book, Rising, Rush takes the topics of environmental systems and environmental justice and applies the poet’s tools; breaking language open to reveal bright, new possibilities of meaning. To get to the truth about what sea level rise looks like in the continental United States, Rush combines detailed renderings of the inner workings of estuaries with a nuanced discussion of how and why certain communities have successfully facilitated a retreat from the rising waters, while others live with the constant reality of flooding. The book argues that tidal ecosystems could serve as moving protective barriers for inland human communities if only there were less concrete hemming them in. Rush convincingly liberates marshland from its reputation as undesirable swamp through a combination of meticulous field research and a nature-lover’s genuine appreciation for wild spaces and the secrets that they hold. But as any good book addressing climate change must do in our era, Rush anchors these ecological forays in challenging and clear-eyed depictions of the people whose lives have already been drastically impacted by rising seas. Importantly, Rush includes firsthand accounts. There is something particularly powerful in Rush’s decision to get out of the way and let her research subjects speak for themselves. Rush put in the work. The strength of the book lies not only in the pulse and momentum of her prose but in the relationships she built while writing it: relationships with scientists and with the many people whose homes are already underwater. Rush is an unusually courageous individual, and the book reverberates with heart. It helps us both to grapple with the mourning we must do as the holocene crumbles around us, and to do the radical work of imagining a way forward.

Ambalila Hemsell (AH): I want to start with the short passage towards the end of Rising in which you write, “Too many times I have been told that there will never be enough money in the federal coffers to relocate everyone away from the risk of rising tides. This is true until we decide to make it untrue” (246). You go on to provide a few tongue-in-cheek names for a not-so-tongue-in-cheek tax proposal that could provide for those funds. To what degree are you optimistic about the potential for policy to adequately address the issue of sea level rise?

Elizabeth Rush (ER): It’s funny, I have been talking about sea level rise for a number of years now, and I often get asked questions that revolve around whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about where we are and where we can go in relationship to the climate crisis. I sense in these questions both a desire for clear-eyed analysis and simultaneously a desire for solace, a desire to know that hope is not lost. But I am also a little tired of offering reassurance. Because I don’t want to reassure people so that they go home feeling vaguely optimistic. What I want is for more people to recognize the urgency of the present moment and become involved in climate activism in their local communities. At this point, LED light bulbs aren’t going to save us; only we can save ourselves by banding together and demanding change. There are a lot of possible pathways forward, and it is up to us to advocate for the options (policy-based or otherwise) that we most fiercely believe in.

To be more specific in terms regards to managed retreat, a recent study suggests that not only are low-income communities highly vulnerable to climate exacerbated threats, they also tend not to have social infrastructure in place to help them track down recovery funding that would give them the chance to move away from flood risk long term. Relocation as a climate change adaptation tool is often only available in wealthier communities with public employees who can devote time to navigating the bureaucratic challenges that come with such an undertaking. So, people living in these well-to-do communities will have their homes purchased at pre-storm prices and start over elsewhere while those living in poorer communities will watch the value seep out of their homes with each flood-event until they are forced into foreclosure. If you take the long view on this phenomenon, you can see that without a shift in public policy that as the storms get stronger and the tides higher, the rich will also get richer and the poor poorer. But I don’t think we can sit around and wait for those in charge to do the right thing on this front. We need to advocate now for adaptation measures that work to overcome the myriad ways in which climate change will only deepen social vulnerability unless we make it otherwise.

AH: If policy isn’t able to successfully mitigate climate disaster, there’s a real possibility that many of the current capitalist systems that are in place might just break down under the cumulative weight of floods, fires, and storms. Already, California, that mythological beacon of American wealth and cool, has seen days and sometimes weeks without electricity. In Rising, you make the case that only by learning to see ourselves as part of the ecosystem and committing to care for each other and therefore the rest of the ecosystem, will we survive the coming world. Are there signs you see now that this paradigm shift is occurring?

ER: The short answer is yes. I teach creative writing, and my students are increasingly writing essays that locate themselves in the web of life. They are exploring everything from the ways in which tending a garden can draw you closer to the land to how a hurricane has deepened inequality in the community they call home. I’m not necessarily assigning topics that are environmentally related– they are choosing to write these pieces all under their own volition. While this is anecdotal, it certainly signifies a real shift at least from my perspective. Getting students interested in our relationship with the more-than-human world used to be a bit of a tough sell for me and now it is often a given. The rise of student movements like Fridays for the Future and Sunrise have been a great catalyst not just for climate organizing but also for piquing curiosity about the myriad forms of life upon which humans depend.

AH: At your speaking engagements, you sometimes use the word endsickness to describe the sinking feeling that the world you know and love is disappearing quickly and inexorably. The poet Toi Derricotte gifted us the phrase, “Joy is an act of resistance.” I think it’s important to sit with that feeling of loss, and at the same time, as in all times of disaster, recognize that joy is still available to us. How do you cultivate a practice joy, and how does that inform your research and writing?

ER: I couldn’t agree more. Cultivating joy is central to my work as a climate writer and activist. Without it, I wouldn’t have the energy to keep reading, writing and fighting. Whenever I am researching a piece, I use it as an excuse to get out into the world that informs that writing and to experience it first-hand. Probably my favorite thing in the world is to simply be in my body, exerting energy, to move through space. Those spaces can be city streets, wetlands, or big mountains. I’ve learned that at a basic level it doesn’t matter so much where I am but rather the freedom to inhabit my own being without having to perform a set of social expectations, whatever those may be. I also have the great privilege of occasionally having the ability to participate in a writing residency, and I tend to seek ones out that give me the opportunity to wring out my body and mind in big open spaces. This winter I will be returning to the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon’s Central Cascades for a couple weeks to pound out the rough draft of a part of my new book. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

AH: You recently spent some time aboard a research vessel in Antarctica. What were you studying? What were your biggest revelations from that experience?

ER: Last winter I sailed to Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Nicknamed the “Doomsday Glacier” by Rolling Stone Magazine, Thwaites is the single largest wildcard in terms of predicting how much sea levels will rise and how fast. Were Thwaites to melt entirely it could raise global sea levels four feet. But it doesn’t stop there, Thwaites acts as a cork to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which, should it become destabilized, has the ability to raise sea levels fourteen feet. Before our expedition, no human beings had ever before visited the calving edge of Thwaites. We have no previous observational data from directly in front of the glacier and as such all our models around how quickly it could retreat remain speculative. The scientists are still working to make sense of the information we gathered last year, but one preliminary report suggests that we were underestimating the amount of warm water that is melting the glacier from beneath, which means that we are underestimating the rate at which sea levels will rise as a result. So that’s unnerving.

On a more poetic level one of the big takeaways for me was realizing that human beings have only been in direct physical contact with Antarctica for 200 years. As a result, the stories we tell about this place tend to be extremely narrow in terms of the themes they navigate. Most revolve around extraction from the ocean in the form of whales or seals, or else are narratives of exploration and conquest. I think it is time we start thinking about human beings and the heart of the south-south in a deeply reciprocal relationship. What we do up here influences what happens down there and vice-versa. It’s this idea that I am exploring as I draft my next book tentatively titled, The Mother of All Things.

AH: It sounds like your next book might do the same thing for Antarctic ice that Rising does for wetlands. Both projects are related to water systems, which, because waterways literally connect the whole world, are helpful in illustrating the connectedness of geographic areas and communities we tend to imagine as separate. Are there ways in which researching and writing about these systems has changed you and the way that you move in the world?

ER: As an adult, I have always been a walker and a biker. I prefer to get from one place to another in a slow and deliberate way. That being said, Rising’s success has actually led me to be on the road much more often than I ever have in the past. Last fall, when I was going from an event in Miami to one in New Orleans I had a real crisis wherein I could see that the activities that I was participating as part of my efforts to broaden, make more democratic, the climate change conversation, would also directly diminish some of the physical landscapes I was working in service of. For a while I puzzled over what to do with this fact. I looked into purchasing carbon offsets, but that didn’t appear as an attractive solution for a number of reasons. Firstly, it suggested that privilege (and the money that attends it) can buy someone out of climate responsibility. And secondly, we have yet to devise a reliable system for keeping track of just how effective these programs are in terms of long-term CO2 sequestration.

Instead, I have taken a couple different tacks. First, I’ve started to try to cluster my speaking engagements so that I am not making multiple trips to far-flung locations over the course of a year, but one more directed, intense trip where I do multiple events with multiple regional partners. Secondly, I’ve decided to take a percentage of my speaker’s fee and donate it directly to Higher Ground, the largest nation-wide coalition of flood survivors. Higher Ground is really remarkable in that they provide local communities with pro-bono legal and scientific council so that residents can advocate for a just recovery that suits their specific situation. And third, and perhaps most important, I’ve joined the fight for people-owned public utilities in my home state of Rhode Island. I now work with Nationalize Grid, an arm of the DSA, that is organizing for a just transition away from fossil fuels. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that individual choices (around what and how to consume) alone will get us out of this mess (though they are important). We need to transition our energy and transportation networks and the only way to do that is good-old organizing efforts. The fight for a livable planet is the civil rights movement of today and we need to not only recognize the power we have when we band together and demand change, but we also need to put in the labor-hours to make the power of these new coalitions heard.

AH: You and I shared the experience of working with the poet Katie Ford as undergraduates. In Rising, you quote from Ford’s book Colosseum, which deals with Hurricane Katrina. In what ways do you feel the influences of Ford and her work on your own?

ER: It wasn’t until I was probably halfway through writing Rising that I remembered that Colosseum is, at its heart, a flood-book. From that moment forth it sat in the stack of books I regularly reached for while writing my first draft. But beyond that, Katie Ford turned me into a real writer. She taught me that writing is, above all else, about the exactitude arrived at through endless revision. So, in a very tangible way, her writing practice informs my own. I recently had the immense pleasure of having a beer with Robert Haas (one of my all-time favorite poets) and he told me that Katie was a student of his, that he considered us part of the same literary family. I nearly fell out of my chair! Which is to say, I think writing as a way of inhabiting the world is beautiful in that it gifts you alternative families when you were least expecting them. You and I, we’re sisters of a sort.