Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility

  • Edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua
  • Haymarket Books
  • 200 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth McGowan
  • July 12, 2023

This ponderous collection contains a few hidden gems.

Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility

Not Too Late landed with an unexpected thunk — and not because the 200-page paperback is heavy. Instead, too much of what’s between its green covers is weighed down with clunky, repetitive, and trite language that isn’t incisive or groundbreaking enough to change the climate story from despair to possibility, as its subtitle promises.

I dove in with relish, anticipating the clear-eyed wisdom and insights co-editor Rebecca Solnit has so artfully shared in essays about the natural world for outlets such as Sierra Magazine and in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, one of her 20-plus books.

No doubt, Solnit delivers excellence again with the four solid pieces she penned for this volume. What is uneven are many of the dispatches from the other 20 contributors, an array of climate scientists, poets, professors, geographers, and activists. Rebecca’s brother, artist and carpenter David Solnit, created the spot-on whimsical graphics that introduce each section.

One reason the collection feels scattered and rushed — with parts such as the Q&A formats coming across as slapdash — becomes clear in the acknowledgements, where Solnit explains that she and co-editor Thelma Young Lutunatabua launched the Not Too Late project as a website in spring 2022. The resultant book went from first draft to published volume in a hasty six months.

That end product is designed for climate rookies and those who are despondent and defeatist over the grim outlook for the planet. Solnit, in a piece called “Packing (and Unpacking) for an Emergency,” describes the compilation as a how-to kit for action. Indeed, cogent and on-point nuggets of advice are tucked within. But readers shouldn’t have to become miners equipped with picks and explosives to extract them.

Handfuls of the accounts are bogged down with academic jargon, in-the-weeds details about the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, and overly obvious castigations of the fossil-fuel industry. To oversimplify, the central messages relayed throughout are: This is a “we,” not and “I,” movement, so don’t become a climate martyr by trying to save the world alone; white people and wealthy nations don’t, and shouldn’t, have a corner on the climate-solutions market; and don’t burrow so deep into the climate rabbit hole that you abandon hope, joy, pleasure, and beauty.

Solnit sparkles when she parses the difference between optimism and hope in the lead essay, “Difficult Is Not the Same as Impossible.” Optimism is empty and leads to passivity, she explains, because it assumes the best outcome is inevitable and requires no action. Hope, however, means recognizing the uncertainty of the future while still being committed to shaping it. It spurs sustained action even if the outcomes are unknown and the doers can’t save everything they love.

Besides Solnit, the authors who most eloquently confront those themes are Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, Indigenous human-rights lawyer Julian Aguon, Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax, and University of Maine associate professor Jacquelyn Gill.

In “A Climate Scientist’s Take on Hope,” Gergis states that the planet isn’t doomed to chaos if countries follow through quickly on stabilizing greenhouse-gas emissions. “How bad we let things get is still in our hands,” she says, which “means we need to redouble our efforts, not give up.” She continues:

“Victory is not the arrival in some promised land. It is a series of imperfect victories along the way that edge us closer to building the critical mass that eventually shifts the status quo.”

Aguon, who lives in Guam, offers a well-told and equally refreshing story in “To Hell with Drowning.” The title is a riff on the anthem Pacific Climate Warriors have declared as threatened islanders across Oceania adapt to calamities they didn’t cause. “We’re not drowning,” they insist. “We’re fighting.”

Halifax, of Santa Fe, explains in “Meeting the More and the Marrow” that grief, fear, and moral anguish are understandably constant companions as humans face the loss of stable ecosystems. She asserts that bearing witness, and not looking away, is what fosters resilience and leads to the possibility of reorganizing at a higher, more robust level — if humans have the humility to garner knowledge from the breakdown, that is.

In a thoughtful essay, Gill notes that the planet, like a giant pinball, has hurtled from one catastrophe to another, and that she witnesses those apocalyptic moments as a paleoecologist. As humans stand at the precipice of disaster, the scientist/teacher ponders whether they will choose to be an asteroid similar to the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs or to be the ferns that replenished the blasted landscape with greenery.

Gergis, the Australian scientist, thinks humans have the wherewithal to be the ferns — but only if critical masses show up and demand that planet-trashing cultural and social norms be redefined. She is convinced it’s the assault of worsening wildfires, droughts, floods, and storms — not technical debates — that is prodding non-activists to engage.

To illustrate that momentum, Gergis recounts a chance encounter with a self-described “country bloke” in a crowded rural pub in her home country after she gave a talk about how a warming world has accelerated wildfires, put koalas in peril, and devastated the Great Barrier Reef.

With tears in his eyes, the man apologized, saying he’d chosen to be oblivious about climate change until her plainspoken language ignited an instant epiphany.

“It’s all right,” she gently told the chastened man. “You are here now. It’s not too late.”

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, DC-based energy and environment reporter whose work appears in the Energy News Network and an array of other publications. This is her fourth review for the Independent. She has won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” as a staff correspondent for InsideClimate News. Bancroft Press in Baltimore published her memoir, Outpedaling “The Big C”: My Healing Cycle Across America, in 2020. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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