A Tale of Two Deltas

This week: conversations with Nathaniel Rich and John Barry about climate change and pandemic, as viewed from New Orleans. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

In his new book Second Nature, Nathaniel Rich writes that “the trajectory of our era—this age of soul delay—runs from naivete to shock to horror to anger to resolve.” We’ve definitely experienced the first four stages in this summer of climate disaster and the Delta variant. But the last phase of the trajectory (resolve) is around, too, if you know where to look.

This week, we look for it—successfully!—in New Orleans, with two New Orleans transplants: Nathaniel Rich, then historian John Barry, author of Rising Tide and The Great Influenza. Rich starts the show with an introduction to New Orleans:

People who are living in New Orleans are doing so with their eyes open and a recognition that this city, this culture, this way of life won’t be around forever.

And once you come to that awareness, I think it changes the way you make decisions about your priorities in life.

I mean, I was talking to this coastal scientist who was on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year because he said, “We’re screwed.” And that was, I think, the headline on A1 of the paper, that essentially we’ve crossed a tipping point with the marshes where, you know, no matter what we do with this master plan to rebuild the coast at some point in the future, the coast will disappear and will rise essentially up to to where Baton Rouge is now. And if New Orleans exists, it will be as an island city.

There’s something horrific about that idea, but he made the point to me that I continue to think about, which is that cities are like people. We shouldn’t expect them to be eternal. Great cities rise and fall and come into being and disappear. Once you understand that, it’s sort of like acknowledging mortality. It forces you to get a clearer perspective on things and I think it informs the way one can live their own personal life.

Nathaniel Rich.

The historian John Barry represents that New Orleans character Rich observes: he’s given relentless attention to mortal threats. Barry has a tendency to recognize the crises that matter the most, writing about both rising sea levels (in Rising Tide) and presciently about pandemics (in The Great Influenza, a book that inspired pandemic preparation long before COVID).

On this week’s show, Barry describes his work to make the oil and gas companies pay to deal with the coastal crisis they’ve caused in Louisiana:

In Louisiana . . . there was a saying that the flag of Texaco flies over the Louisiana capitol. You know, I was the architect, I guess it was my idea, you know, to sue the industry, but it didn’t take much convincing of my colleagues on the Levee Board. In fact, one of them said he wished he thought of it, because we needed money to protect people’s lives. And they caused the damage, so it seemed reasonable to expect them to pay for it.

John Barry.

Read: Robert Walser

Walser’s fictional essays by a boy named Fritz Kocher, writing for school assignments, drift away from so many responsibilities, like the responsibilities of non-fiction, or of adulthood. The character’s short assignments move fluidly between pretentious and profound and clichéd and surprising—they’re a lot of fun. Here’s a sample from one of Fritz’s efforts, translated by Damion Searls, about a visit to a mountain:

At the top, we sat down on a bench and enjoyed the view. A view like that is the most splendid and liberating thing in the world. Our gaze went down into the valleys and out into the farthest distance, only to tarry in the closest nearness the next moment. You look calmly at the fields, meadows, and mountainsides stretched out at your feet, as though lifeless, or asleep. Mist steals through the narrow valleys and the wide valleys, the forests dream, the roofs of the city sparkly blearily, everything is a soft, pleasant, big silent dream. Now it looks like the rolling waves of the ocean, now like a cute little toy, now like something infintely clear again, something that has suddenly become clear. I can’t think of the words for it.

There’s a human version of nature here—city rooftops are within view, and the view is emphatically a view (reliant on an observer for its existence, given form by human description). It’s almost, but not quite, the “second nature” of Rich’s book, in which nature and human activity make something new.

Listen: Missy Mazoli

Vespers for a New Dark Age could be the title for the soundtrack of this uncanny new era, and the music, composed by Missy Mazzoli, has an eerie drama. Here’s an introduction to Mazzoli from NPR:

Missy Mazzoli . . . is trying to tear down the gates for new composers and listeners. She’s a prominent figure in new music; she has three operas to her name with librettist Royce Vavrek, including the vicious Breaking the Waves — an adaptation of the controversial 1996 Lars von Trier film — and the dry, spooky Proving Up, based on Karen Russell’s ghost story set on the 19th-century prairie. Her work engages with stories about human beings and the oft-fraught relationships between them. None of her main characters is someone you would aspire to be or, conversely, an irredeemable monster (except one, in Proving Up, who actually is a monster).

This week’s ephemeral library

“‘We’re Screwed’: The only question is how quickly Louisiana wetlands will vanish, study says.” Figuring out the right art for a hospital. The work of video games. On Pessoa.

That’s it for this week, folks. Happy August!

The OS Climate Crusaders




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Save the Bees

Carbon Footprint Reduction: Why Bother?

Ignored and Forgotten

10 Common Homeowner’s Insurance Claims That are Preventable

Overtourism — What It Is and How You Can Help

I’ve Been Saying the Wrong Thing but People Have Still Been Horrified

A white stone wall with red hearts of various sizes painted all over it. In two of the center hearts, words are written that indicate the someone is missed with the initials RIP.

Fashion Fortnight: Of the First Two Weeks of April ‘21

Economic Roots of the Consumption Dilemma

1920’s woman in a rickshaw

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

More from Medium

Future is a breeze | Hasso Krull

The Matrix: Resurrections: A Poorly Disguised Money-Grab

I Worry About the Guitar

Is ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ the Marvel-ification we feared?