“Hope is something that you cultivate” LO Reads author Elizabeth Rush on Rising, climate change, and writing

The Pulitzer-finalist author of “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore” describes her path to writing Rising, what she would have told LOSD students, and the future of climate change action.

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Grace Goverman, News Editor

With her Pulitzer-finalist book, “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore,” Elizabeth Rush captures the stories of individuals on the frontlines of sea level rise in the United States. Through photography, testimony and commentary from experts, Rush composes a deeply humanizing perspective on climate change. While she unfortunately had to cancel her speaking events in conjunction with LO Reads due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the author, gardener and expecting mother sat down with me over Zoom in May. She shared what she would have told LOHS students and community members, her journey writing “Rising,” her takeaways from her seven year-long writing journey, an update on “Rising’s” subjects, her recent scientific expedition to Antarctica and her thoughts on the road ahead. 

“Like I did with ‘Rising,’ part of the reason why I want to engage with high schools is to be there and listen to the students, rather than tell them anything… One thing I’ve learned as ‘Rising’ has gained in popularity… a lot of young people actually know one of [the book’s] main arguments already, [that] climate vulnerabilities and other kinds of vulnerabilities often overlap, and that those who are most vulnerable to climate change in the present tense are often most vulnerable to other stressors and that face economic and social hardship, and that’s an idea that I think a lot of my folks of my generation and older are just waking up to… When I go to different schools, [I] both give a lecture on climate change and who’s vulnerable to it, but I’m also there to sort of celebrate the work of young climate activists.” 

During her visits to schools across the country, she encourages teachers and school administrators to involve students in climate activism with varying results.  “I often get questions from teachers: ‘Oh, this is going to be so depressing for my students. How can we possibly teach climate change without just making them want to jump off a cliff?’ And I [said], ‘Well, I generally don’t think young people have been having that response. I think their response has been one of active participation and ‘Ok, let’s get to work then.’ 

The emotional perspective required to face climate change, Rush says, is deeply personal. “It depends on each person and where they are in their climate awareness… People ask me what gives me hope, and I think that there’s a danger of making hope seem like a passive emotion, as though it’s like a gift someone gives you… [but] hope is something that you cultivate, and I think it’s cultivated by devoting time and energy to the climate fight. I would say I’m more hopeful today than I was eight years ago, but that has as much to do with the fact that now so much of my life is about this issue and about raising awareness that I feel like I’m actually doing something. [To] arrive at hope and to cultivate hope, people have to pass through extreme grief and fear that hope won’t arrive, and I think really only from that place does climate action start to happen… If you’re kind of new to this awareness of the crisis that climate change presents, then you may need to sit in your grief and uncertainty for a while. If you’ve been in the fight for a while and you’ve done some of that grieving, then maybe you’ll be at a different state in… the process and be moving towards climate action and that action I think can be hope generating.”

Long before publishing books and giving speeches at schools around the country, Rush studied environmental literature and poetry during her time at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. “I kind of knew that’s what I wanted to write in a very broad sense. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it also felt like that was the profession that half the state of Oregon would’ve liked.” After graduation, she rode her bicycle alone to Alaska before moving to Vietnam for three years, working as a writer for an art foundation that supported controversial north Vietnamese artists. “And essentially it was a way for me to write and get paid and have some adventures and live outside of my comfort bubble in Oregon– I loved Oregon, but I was afraid that if I stayed I wouldn’t evolve as much as I would like to as a person because it’s so good.” 

In addition to the arts foundation, Rush also wrote for various international newspapers as another opportunity to get paid for her work. A couple years later, she was hired to write a large piece on the India-Bangladesh border fence. While at the wall, created to block Bangladeshi migrants from entering India, the people’s stories would later lead Rush to a new story. “I spent about a month in India and a month in Bangladesh, and folks in Bangladesh just told me the fence wasn’t a problem…. they said you can bribe your way through, there’s ways to get through the fence. The real problem was that people are being displaced because the family land they had farmed for centuries…. the aquifer beneath it had turned salty so it wasn’t supporting plant life anymore.” 

After returning to the United States, Rush contemplated her future writing projects. “I was really struck by a couple things. I [did not] want to have to keep flying to Asia to do my work — that doesn’t feel sustainable. I also don’t just want to write about southeast Asia…. Those two things are kind of intertwined…. Then I sort of have to start writing about something else… And I said, ‘You know, if sea level rise is happening in Bangladesh, it’s happening in the U.S. also. We just don’t hear about it.’ I started to go out in search of U.S. sea level rise stories. And that’s how ‘Rising’ got started… I would write these little grants and I would get $500 here, $2000 there to go do one of these reporting trips. The first place I went in the U.S. was Louisiana.” Laughing, she reflected on the project, “And then it became… a seven-year project. In retrospect, it kind of went by fast.”

Over those seven years, Rush worked various odd jobs while writing, including time in a pie shop, as a barista, babysitting, apartment caretaking, dog walking and writing copy for university magazines. She also continued to write more traditional journalism, searching for assignments on sea level rise.  “I’d… do a month or two long reporting trip and come back and write a piece. I probably had about two pieces a year like that, in the beginning.… And a couple years in, I started to get tired of…. the language I had to use to get sea level rise into the newspaper because it all sort of sounded the same.” 

As she started to apply for larger grants, she ultimately received one that sent her to Bates College in Maine to teach one class every semester for two years. “I had done a lot of the preliminary research, but…. previous to those two years of the fellowship, I was always paying the bills for my writing and trying to make ends meet and cobble things together. And then I got this more prestigious grant, and it really was the gift of time more than anything else that let me go back to all of that research and say, ‘How can I tell this story in a way that’s going to make people pay attention to it?’”  

While interviewing subjects for ‘Rising,’ Rush formed friendships that continue to affect her today. She checks in with them every couple of months, and, “I’m still friends with Chris and Nicole and Laura.” Rush described how with Laura, a Maine resident who told her story of watching the sea level rise over many years from her home, “I was going to spend a week in [her house] this summer with a group of friends — she rents out her house, she still hasn’t sold it.” Chris, whose life on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana is described early in the novel, “is deep in the relocation process.” Nicole, a New Yorker who told her story of her father’s death in the floods of Hurricane Irene, “just had her second baby after her father’s death. She lives in a duplex with her mom now and she’s doing really well.” 

Along with their friendship, Rush’s seven year journey also brought her insight into human resiliency in the face of climate change. “I would say [the] friendship [of the individuals interviewed in ‘Rising’] is what sticks with me the most. And seeing…. that climate change can fundamentally reshape the shape of your life, but it doesn’t have to fundamentally change who you are. And that people can undergo profound transitions and maintain a sense of purpose and identity through them”… I think in some ways we’re seeing that, and that might resonate with people more today than it did three months ago. We’re going through this crisis of the coronavirus together and making really profound adaptations in how we live, and you can recognize that there’s some principle of being that abides in each of us, that it’s not fundamentally forcing us to become different people, that we can figure out how to be ourselves through a time of great transition. I think the more we can know and embrace that, the less scary climate change seems, the more it seems like an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Like Rush herself, her book also focuses on the human impact of climate change through meditations on language. “Climate change is a social justice issue. I am sometimes weary, or leary, of the discourse that surrounds social justice issues because it can seem exclusionary– if you don’t speak the lingo, you don’t get to be a member of our special tribe. And so part of what I think ‘Rising’ does is it opens up the playing field a little bit…. Every chapter starts with a resident speaking in their own voice about their experience with flooding, and they don’t have to use words like ‘social justice issue’ or ‘environmental justice’ to describe their situation, they just talk from a place of authenticity about what it means to live on land that is changing its shape. What we need is a more democratic climate change conversation that has space in it for all different kinds of voices, not just ones who know how to speak a particular kind of jargon.” 

She does see the dialogue gradually becoming more open, noting that “…with the presence of someone like AOC [Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] who… does a really good job of making that connection between financial insecurity and pollution and access in the context of her constituency in New York City, and she talks about that in a language that is really approachable and that I think reflects what people have experienced as opposed to how policy makers would normally talk about it…. I hope that that continues, that’s a trend that continues gaining momentum, and I think it will.”

On that path towards structural change, Rush cautions looking to the pandemic as a model for reducing climate change. “I think that… right now we see a lot of sort of early reports that say ‘Oh, look! The skies over LA are blue! We’re flying less and emitting less CO2!’ The early preliminary reports that I’ve read suggest that this year we’ll see somewhere between a 5-7 percent drop in carbon emissions…. It’s really important to note that… we need a 5-7 percent drop in CO2 emissions every year for the next, like, 15, 20, 30 years to start meeting our climate target.” She also notes that the idea of the individual carbon footprint was popularized by British Petroleum, or BP, in 2005. “It’s really about, blame shifting from the fossil fuel industry and onto the individual, such that they become obsessed and paralyzed with what they can do in order to lower their CO2 emissions. And I think that it keeps us feeling sort of small and disempowered… there’s another discourse that’s arisen pretty recently about whether we should have kids or not [to reduce carbon footprint] … That’s where I start to get angry…  It makes me want to scream ‘Get out of my uterus!’ You don’t get to choose or dictate the set of moral parameters around whether or not a woman wants to choose to have a child or bring a child into the world…. You could keep the same amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere by getting together with some friends and protesting and shutting down a coal-fired power plant for a single day than you could if you chose to have a child. So, that’s just not a story that we hear that much about… It’s important to note that they are not going down fast enough that there are limits to what all of this isolation can achieve, and that what we really need is to put in place a set of policies that dictate how the recovery package is spent that demands that the jobs and infrastructure that’s supported are jobs and infrastructure that are really about transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels.”

Rush describes her upcoming project, which also focuses on sea level rise, as a “deep feminist rewriting of Antarctic literature.” For two months of 2019, she went on a government-sponsored ship to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. The expedition to the glacier, considered ground zero for sea level rise, was the first group of people to visit the iceberg’s ocean/ice interface. About the size of the state of Florida, the glacier rests on ground below sea level, where warming deep circumpolar water is starting to work into the glacier. “It’s been causing the glacier to fall apart by essentially eroding the ice from beneath. And there’s a lot of speculation around whether or not that process could lead to rapid, irreversible collapse of the ice shelf, the west Antarctic ice sheet as well…. Essentially, we have no first hand observational data from this place in the world.” 

During the two months onboard, she interviewed everyone involved in the observation process, from the scientists to the ship cooks. “My next book is really about that journey, and at the same time it’s about the journey into motherhood and thinking about… choosing to have a child and thinking about what it means to participate in that regenerative act as the climate crisis accelerates. And I would add a third thread that it’s also sort of a deep feminist rewriting of Antarctic literature because if you look at the history of antarctic literature it’s really fascinating. The first person to see the continent sees it in 1820. Before that no human being had ever even seen this place. We didn’t know that it existed, we thought it might but we didn’t know. And what happens from that point on is that… because of the moment in human history when we first see Antarctica, Antarctica kind of enters our stories as a backdrop for extraction. So it’s really where whalers and sealers sought out these massive creatures so that they could pull them from the sea and turn their bodies into oil. And then it becomes the site of a backdrop for very masculinist displays of conquest at the end of the imperial age. And those are the stories that are the most famous antarctic stories. And, I think that they both, often, paint the continent as a woman to be penetrated and conquered. And so I’m really trying to think about Antarctica in different terms. As a place as a being that profoundly shapes us and that we are in a reciprocal relationship with.”

As Rush works hard on her next book, she offers advice to aspiring writers: work hard and work consistently. “We have this old family friend who, whenever I see her, she…. says the same thing: ‘You are such a bad writer! I can’t believe that you became a professional writer!’ And, I mean, she was sort of right. And my only suggestion is just that it’s not about talent. The students that I’ve had that have gone on to become professional writers are the ones who are most willing to show up to do the work again and again and again. It’s really a labor of love. I’m not like some amazing genius, I just show up every day, and I’m like a mule, I just walk very slowly up that mountain. So, if you want it, you can do it. You just got to devote a lot of time to it.”