Thank You, Zadie Smith
Beginning this summer and escalating through the winter, as I spend more of my waking hours reading, writing, and talking with people about the climate crisis, I have become insatiably hungry for fiction. The goal is to get dragged by skillful plotting so far into another world that an open door will always be waiting for me during the day when the severity of our current predicament grows too intense, and at night I can wander through the door and fall asleep there. This is a welcome development.
I had always been a reader: it was a point of pride, a building block of my self-conception. So it was a blow to my ego when after my father was diagnosed with cancer I entered a two-year period during which fiction lost its color. Movies and novels felt too frivolous, completely beside the point, and almost despicable in their non-reality. Only science, political history, documentary could grab me. I read a lot, but like a workhorse, not a flower-picker or a pilgrim.
These days my father is still living, still ill, and even though I’m again craving headspace where the rules are fresh and the threats are imaginary, lately when I finish a novel and lie down to sleep I find myself wishing for something extra. I read all of David Mitchell’s novels, and Zadie Smith’s most recent. After each encounter with my living favorites, after I feel through the intimacies, revelations, tiny soft pieces and askew perspectives that aggregate slyly into The Big Picture, my day job creeps back in, and I long for one of them to turn their prodigious gifts toward the subject of the climate.
These authors describe a worldview I share, but this most critical part is absent, or very peripheral to the concerns they describe. As much as I long for escape, I also wish for leadership, solidarity, and the validation of my deepest motivating force. Of all the kinds of urgency I feel, this special strand has been cultivating: will David Mitchell and Zadie Smith please write something urgent and beautiful about climate change?
Fast forward to April 3rd: Zadie Smith publishes Elegy for a Country’s Seasons in the New York Review of Books. In the essay, she speaks of the scale problem inherent to the climate crisis: how our pain is tied to things that we are capable of understanding, so perforce does not encompass the whole of the problem. The size of the problem, taken in full, turns individual humans into hopeless puddles. Only the smaller, particular losses could possibly motivate us: “Chilly April showers, Wimbledon warmth. July weddings that could trust in fine weather,” are all leaving, getting scrambled.
You’re not meant to mention the minor losses, they don’t seem worth mentioning—not when compared to the visions of apocalypse conjured by climate scientists and movie directors. And then there are all those people who believe that nothing much is happening at all.
The philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore describes a spectrum from blinding hope to blinding despair, and says that on either end, you don’t have to do anything. Either ‘there’s nothing to be done,’ or ‘it’ll all be fine.’ Only in the grey middle between extremes is action possible. Smith’s phenomenal essay is an invitation to that middle space, the human scale where, she writes, “I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?” And I am overjoyed.