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.
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.
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
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
That’s it for this week, folks. Happy August!
The OS Climate Crusaders