Futureverse Podcast
Ep. 7. Nathaniel Rich: Navigating the Moral Terrain: Climate Activism, Political Possibilities, and the Literary Landscape

Ep. 7. Nathaniel Rich: Navigating the Moral Terrain: Climate Activism, Political Possibilities, and the Literary Landscape

Molly and Ramanan speak with American novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow, Second Nature, and Losing Earth.

In the latest episode of Futureverse, Molly Wood and Ramanan Raghavendran interview American novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich. Listen as they delve into the complexities of climate activism, political challenges, and literary reflections on the environmental crisis through Rich’s climate-inflected fiction and nonfiction works, Odds Against Tomorrow, Losing Earth: A Recent History, and Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade.

They discuss the moral tensions underlying financial and moral choices, highlighting the gray areas in navigating our troubled economic landscape. From the failures of past political processes to the emergence of youth-led activism, they explore the evolving language and emotional resonance driving climate discourse.

Discover how literature grapples with the post-natural world, offering narratives that challenge traditional views of wilderness and human impact. Tune in for a thought-provoking conversation on the urgent need for nuanced storytelling and meaningful policy responses in the face of environmental upheaval.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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Show Notes

[01:49] Nathaniel Rich's journey into focusing on climate change

[08:53] Climate change and the importance of self-reflection 

[12:40] "Odds Against Tomorrow" and how climate change is portrayed in the book

[15:09] Financial vultures in capitalizing off disaster 

[17:25] What is morally right in a capitalistic system?

[20:28] Reaching solutions on climate change despite political consensus

[24:26] The framing of hope versus despair is an oversimplification

[27:28] How the language around climate change has shifted in the last five years

[28:16] The concept of a post-natural world is a realistic view

[31:33] Exploring the complexities and trade-offs of our current predicament

Nathaniel (00:00): The work that excites me is not work that is concentrated on the best outcomes or the worst outcomes. It's work about trying to examine what this new landscape is doing to us as people.

Molly (00:15): Welcome back to Futureverse, a podcast centered around climate fiction and how it helps us imagine our way forward through climate uncertainty.

Ramanan (00:24): Hello, I am Ramanan Raghavendran.

Molly (00:27): And I'm Molly Wood. Ramanan and I are climate investors and storytellers, so a big part of our job is to try to imagine the future-shaping power of new systems, technologies, perspectives, and that perspectives part is where climate fiction comes in. It provides an amazing medium for contextualizing, humanizing and imagining these possible futures.

Ramanan (00:48): And today we're joined by novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich. He's a prolific writer of both climate inflected fiction and nonfiction, but today we're mostly going to focus on his second novel, Odds Against Tomorrow although we have questions about his other books, and that book was published a little over 10 years ago. It introduces us to the cynical world of fearmongering for profit, and yet, spoiler alert, these fears are revealed to be well-founded when a hurricane strikes New York. From there, the focus turns to surviving and then living with the realities of a worst case scenario.

Molly (01:20): Nathaniel is also the author of Losing Earth which charts the emergence of climate change onto the political radar in the 1980s, which we're going to talk a little bit about, and how inaction and frustration set us on the path to where we find ourselves today, not acting and frustrated. His most recent book is Second Nature, which is a unique exploration of the post-natural world where the human footprint can be found virtually everywhere.

Ramanan (01:44): Nathaniel, it is a pleasure to have you here.

Nathaniel (01:47): Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to speaking with you.

Ramanan (01:49) We'll start with an earth-shatteringly broad question as we are want to do here. Your literary and journalistic career has taken you across many themes and topics. What was your journey to focusing more on something you've called a cliche elsewhere because we use it so much, your journey to climate change and to humanity's relationship with nature? What led you to that point?

Nathaniel (02:12): Yeah, I mean, I think of it as having two parallel tracks. I mean, one is my own personal interest in the issue as a human being in the world and someone who considers himself a responsible citizen of the world. And so I had growing concern about environmental issues really since childhood, but I have concerns about all kinds of things that I don't choose to write about. What drew me to writing about it, I think, was a frustration I felt as a reader; as a reader of fiction and nonfiction and daily journalism, but also narrative journalism, that I kept finding that as I read pieces about climate change, environmental damage more broadly, that they were all leaving something out.

I had a very strong grounding in the scientific facts and the politics, the history to some extent, but it felt very removed from my, not even so much my daily life, but my inner life, that it was being spoken about in this abstract way, one in this buffet of disasters and anxieties that we face as a society. And I felt like there hadn't been, again, this is more than 10 years ago, the landscape has changed quite a lot, but I felt that there hadn't been a very serious and imaginative grappling with what this meant for us. Not what it meant for, I don't know, biodiversity or for sea-level rise, that was covered pretty well, but what it meant for all of us going about our lives in the society that we're in and the democracy that we're in.

How is it seeping into our personal lives? How is it seeping into the way we thought about the future individually, personally? How did it affect our relationships, the little decisions that you make a thousand times a day? What was the knowledge of what was coming doing to us? And I felt like there was a real opportunity to grapple with these issues in a more personal, emotional, philosophical even, manner, but to do so you'd have to do it through storytelling. And I don't think I necessarily articulated all of these things at the time. I think the way it...

If you asked me 15 years ago, I would just say, “It's annoying that all pieces about climate change are boring.” I know what they're going to say. You read the headline, you know what the next 10 paragraphs are going to be, the familiar tropes, the conventions, the warnings, et cetera.

Narratively, as shocking as the material was, it was narratively dead on the page. And it seemed like such a disappointment because of course there's no higher stakes. I feel there's no higher stakes issue in the world than the question of whether we will, our civilization, will survive. And so I was trying to figure out ways to get at that. And I think that's what brought me to the stories that I began to write both in fiction and as well as in nonfiction.

Molly (05:16): Before we turn more specifically to the book, one of the central theses of this podcast is this idea that imagining these potential futures, putting them into this fictional context is a way to process and deal. And I wonder how, especially having done these deep dives both in fiction and in nonfiction, where you find yourself. Before we get to the book specifically, but Mitchell, this Odds Against Tomorrow's protagonist who is animated by imagining disaster all the time, what's your level of fear and anxiety after doing this work for so long? Are you him?

Nathaniel (06:00): Yeah, of course, as I'm in every character. But one thing I do share, I think, with Mitchell is that there is a level of catharsis that I experience by going more deeply into the horror of it and into the particularities of it. I find it oddly soothing, too. Especially with Odds Against Tomorrow, people would ask me all the time, "Did you make yourself go crazy?" Because it's full of just worst case scenarios and very realistic projections that are all based in... Everything in it is real. The facts are all nonfiction in the novel.

Molly (06:40): I'm going to say, and interject, that I was kind of hoping it wasn't as real as it turned out to be. I did Google a lot of stuff you put in there, and I was like, "Damn it."

Nathaniel (06:49): Yeah, because I knew that people would Google this stuff. And it was very important to me that it all clung to this sort of skeleton of reality because if you were to Google something about... If you were to Google, "Is the Yellowstone volcano real? Is it due to erupt and will it destroy all of humanity?" And if it was like, "No, this is something this guy made up," you would lose the whole... The stakes would be destroyed, the dramatic stakes, would be destroyed because in many cases, dramatic stakes, it's dramatic because it is real. So the characters are responding to...

And it's dramatic for the reader for the same reason. And so, unfortunately, the Yellowstone volcano is real and so is everything else. But I find, like him, the more I research, you get past the sort of dread and terror into this other place that is probably some combination of coming to terms with it, some level of dark humor, maybe, for some of these things, probably some kind of numbing aspect to it, a kind of exposure therapy, maybe, probably the best way of thinking about it.

But ideally, my hope is that it brings, that the reader can come along on this journey and that you get past the fear and you get into a place of sort of a deeper communion with the information and a place where you see things with greater clarity. And, hopefully, what that allows one to do is to, and this is what has happened for me in writing about this stuff and reading books about it, is you get to a place where you have at least greater clarity about your own life and what you can do and how you want to direct your own energies, and where do you want to place your anxieties and your hopes? And so I think it's the act of self... Ultimately the goal is self-reflection. I think that's something that narrative writing is uniquely able to further.

Ramanan (08:53): We're going to dig a little deeper into the book, Odds Against Tomorrow, that is. It's just interesting because we're sitting here discussing it, and your life has moved on. The book is now 10 years old. If you were to write it today-

Nathaniel (09:09):
Terrifying sentence. Yeah.

Ramanan (09:14): Yes. But if you were to write it today, if there were a revised edition to come out next week and you've got 10 more years under your belt, how we're dealing with climate change, the financial structures that are emerging, we can talk endlessly about polarization in society and a certain sense of public hysteria, would you change anything in the book?

Nathaniel (09:34): Is it a cop-out to say no? I would not.

Ramanan (09:36): It is not.

Nathaniel (09:42): I mean, I... Thank you. I really wouldn't. Yeah, thank you. I mean, I worked very hard to make sure that the facts were all accurate and I was terrified that I got something wrong, of course. And I was terrified also in the months before publication, and this sounds extraordinarily vain or narcissistic or something, and it is I guess, but I was terrified that once Hurricane Sandy was on the weather radar, was predicted to hit New York, I was terrified I'd have to throw out the book because I knew exactly what would happen when a hurricane hit New York City.

I'd studied the charts and the reports by the Army Corps of Engineers and all of the rest, and I felt like it was going to be, they'd have to cancel the publication. It was too on the nose. And if anything, I was grateful that, as horrible as it was, it wasn't bad enough to cancel the entire book, which sounds a horrible and extremely shameful statement. But the point is, actually everything stood up to the facts.

I was also terrified writing it because I was writing in the near term, and I'll never do this again, writing a book that's set in the future, but the near-term future, which is very unusual. I knew at the time, but dramatically it had to be that way. Every year I would have to change…It took me six years to write the thing. Every year I'd have to revise based on some things that had been predicted then happened, and then other things were more likely to happen. And so that was a constant anxiety. But in terms of the actual finished result, no, I'm proud of it and I think it stands up and I am writing a novel now that's in this realm that I won't say very much about, but are there things I'm doing differently in that book to write about this theme? Yes, of course, very different, but it's a different type of project and it has its own demands.

In terms of Odds Against Tomorrow, I think it held up, but it also... It's a book for that time, it was the right book to write. It made sense for me and then for the audience in a way that I could not have possibly predicted or planned for.

Molly (11:57): One of the things that I found most interesting about this book, and you can tell me if I made this up or misinterpreted it, but you've got this paranoid protagonist, Mitchell, and he's imagining these detailed nightmare scenarios for profit and for clients, and very few of them upfront are related in or rooted in climate change, right? It's like this simmering back burner. He's imagining viruses and nuclear attacks, and the book is describing worsening drought and heat, and these agricultural concerns by Elsa.

Molly (12:40) And so it's like you, the reader, it's almost literally dramatic irony. You know this thing is going to come and then the hurricane is the real disaster. Did I imagine that? Did you do that on purpose? It's nature that gets you while you're looking at everything else?

Nathaniel (12:40):
That's a good question. I mean, I think I wanted to reflect the broad range of anxieties about... I mean, when I wrote the novel, I didn't set out to write a climate novel. I mean, the term climate fiction... The first time I heard the word “cli-fi”, climate fiction, was in the NPR piece about the book, which I think was the first example, as far as I know, publicly, in publication, using that term, was about Odds Against Tomorrow. And so I saw it at the time of composition as a book about anxiety about the future. And so then there was a question of what are the anxieties?

And then I wrote what I felt were the most realistic ones and it turned out a lot of them were climate related. But you're right, there's a prediction of a plague. There's terrorism. There are financial meltdowns. There's foreign policy stuff, nuclear stuff. And so I think that's more the fact that it ends up...And then I needed something to enact, that could play on the page. And so it wasn't calculated, really.

And then because of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York two months before the publication, the reception of the book, the context within which it was read, the cultural and social context, changed dramatically to the point where I remember on book tour, everyone would say, "Is this your book about Sandy?" And I'd have to say, "Actually I didn't write this last month, it took me six years to write." One of my anxieties about the publication was that people would think the whole thing was farfetched, that it's some fantasy, that it's a fantasy novel. And in fact, because of Sandy, it was the opposite. People said, "Oh, this is a documentarian novel." And I'd have to say, "No." And also the public attention was focused on the climate aspect of it, which is fine. I have nothing against that, but it wasn't intended to land squarely the way it did.

Ramanan (14:48): Okay. One more question on Odds Against Tomorrow, and that's... We're climate investors so we are the plutocrats who will get slaughtered when the revolution comes, and we're deeply interested in the finances around climate. Well, okay, just me. Molly's a plutocrat.

Molly (15:05): I'm a very nice plutocrat.

Nathaniel (15:10): A look of horror.

Ramanan (15:09): So in your book financial vultures capitalizing off disaster or fear of disaster play a pretty big role, and the climate crisis continues to unfold apace. Do you think we'll see more specialized predators, so to speak, emerge as the climate crisis unfolds?

Nathaniel (15:31): I mean, we have enough, I think. We're pretty well stocked. I mean, it's funny, since you're interested in nonfiction and fiction, that whole premise of a consulting... Mitchell works at a consulting firm in Wall Street that is hired to predict worst case scenarios through this financial loophole that indemnifies their clients, that is "If we hire FutureWorld to tell us all the bad things that happen, we've done our due diligence and if something actually happens, we're protected legally." That idea was conveyed, or what I thought was that idea, what's in the book, it was conveyed to me by a friend who worked on Wall Street, and he said, "You're not going to believe it. There's this new thing." And he explained what's in the book, and I said, "That's crazy. I need to write about that." And I thought it was going to be a magazine piece, the most cynical corporate malfeasance.

And I started to interview people in that world and, essentially, risk analysts and people who worked for some of these firms. I was working near the financial district at the time at the Paris Review, which is downtown in New York, and everyone said, "Yeah, you're right. There's a version of this that goes on, but there's nothing exactly right." Everyone was confused.

And, basically, the short version of the story is, I had taken some leaps based on what my friend told me or some misunderstandings, and it turned out what I wrote about didn't exactly exist. But then I also knew someone in state politics, and I asked him, "Could this exist?" And he said, "Yes, it'd be very easy for a state senator to introduce this legislation, and this is what..." So I did figure out a possible loophole that could be exploited. I gave the key to a future generation of very cynical climate exploiting plutocrats. So that holds up.

Ramanan (17:19): A whole new reason to listen to Futureverse, ideas to prey on the innocent.

Nathaniel (17:25): To prey on the innocent, yeah, and to profit from dread. But, of course, I think it works narratively because you get the sense that this is happening at all levels of our economy, that there's the same kind of predatory investment and indemnification, and that the benefits are not distributed equally. The costs are not distributed equally, and so it's morally consistent with where things stand. And, yeah, I don't see that going away.

Molly (17:50): As we're about to turn to Losing Earth and some of the journalism work, I mean, I would say no question we find ourselves in a scenario where we're selling risk and risk is becoming a motivator for some climate action. But another big theme in this book is what preparation could have done. And so we imagine risk scenarios and we try to mitigate risk, but none of that actually results in wide-scale preparation of the type that would save lives or, I don't know, slow down the climate crisis.

Nathaniel (18:27): Right. And that's, I think, a central moral argument or theme in the book is between what is right financially, economically and what's right morally, and they usually don't track onto one another. And there are moments, there's a moment near the end of the novel where his partner, Jane, sees a way to continue to profit out of this line of work, the same kind of cynical type of work. And she's not a bad person necessarily. She's just working in this capitalistic system and she sees a way in or a way to profit.

But Mitchell has had this whole moral awakening and a transformation, and he's disgusted by the prospect. But it was very important for me to show that it's not that he's right and she's wrong. It's that these are different approaches that people can have and that there's a lot of gray area in between, and each side can go off the deep end to absurdity and narcissism and all the rest, and it's not so simple as heroes and villains often.

I mean, there are plenty of villains certainly to go around, but there is a wide gulf of gray area that I think Mitchell and Jane fall in. And it was very important for me to preserve the moral tension there between them, that it doesn't become a hero and villain story. It becomes about two people trying to navigate through this very troubling terrain where it feels there are no right answers.

Molly (19:57): That's a perfect segue then, I think, to Losing Earth which is a nonfiction story that still takes us on this journey with some of the key actors who pushed climate change into the political agenda in the '80s. You talk about how 1989 was this critical policy turning point where the US government appeared to really retreat, arguably abandon, real action on climate change. Summarize a little bit of that work for us, if you would, and then tell us where you'd put us now on the hope versus despair dial.

Nathaniel (20:28): Yeah. Well, first of all, it's just refreshing to talk about these two books back to back because I really felt like they're the same book on some deep genetic level.

Obviously completely different stories and different periods and forms, but essentially it's the nonfiction version of this story, how to navigate this and the frustrations and the hypocrisies and so on. But the short version is, by 1979, the scientific consensus on climate change was established, and for the first time, the conversation moved from the science and the technicalities of understanding of CO2 in the atmosphere to possible solutions and political solutions.

So the beginning of a political process begins in earnest 1979, and Losing Earth is the story of just a handful of people and predominantly one person, Rafe Pomerance, who for most of the decade is, I think, quite literally the only climate activist, at least in the US. It's very hard for him. And this is something that I think is very confusing and surprising to this generation of activists, very difficult for him to convince the world of environmental activism, of which he's a product, he comes out of Friends of the Earth, founded by David Brower, the Sierra Club, to convince them that climate change, global climate change, is an environmental problem that they can address through their forms of fundraising and politics and so on.

And so it's a story of Rafe and a couple scientists, James Hanson, a couple politicians including Al Gore, who, armed with this terrifying information, essentially they're like the Mitchell Zukors of this period, bring it to everyone power that they can and try to figure out a way to solve the problem or at least mitigate it. And over the course of the decade there are a bunch of false starts and ups and downs, but by the end of the '80s, we're on the precipice of what's seen at the time as a solution, which is a global treaty to reduce carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions.

It's the first iteration of the IPCC process. At which point it all falls apart. Right. As they're about to sign a draft of intent that would be signed by every environmental minister in the world, just about, in 1989, and then you have this total quick breakdown, political breakdown, of where the issue becomes extremely partisan. The oil and gas industry begins its concerted disinformation campaign to try to destroy any possible policy or action, and you get to the paralysis that we've been in ever since.

So the book is about this golden period between '79 and '89 where there was political possibility. There was pretty impressive political consensus, cross parties, and there was a mechanism that was introduced and put in place that was seen as the answer. And yet it all resulted in failure even before you have the ascendants of the oil and gas industry as this behemoth, through this behemoth disinformation campaign.

So it's a tragedy, unfortunately, but it's an effort to try to grapple with not just why did the politics break down, but what is it about this problem that is so bedeviling to people who, even when they agree on the substance, have, time and time again, found it so difficult to reach solutions?

Ramanan (24:07): And where would you put us, just to tack on Molly's last question, on the hope versus despair dial? Where are we now?

Nathaniel (24:17): It's a good question. I really try to resist the framing of hope and despair.

Ramanan (24:24): I love that. I love that. And we do too. For the most part.

Nathaniel (24:26): It's a very American conception that…When I spoke about the book abroad really it causes confusion. It's a Hollywood idea of will the bad guys win or will we save the day? And of course, the truth is there's a wide range of outcomes possible, but it's an honest question. Yes, it's also a way out. It's an easy out.

Molly (24:49): Maybe it's more like if you wrote that book today, much like Odds Against Tomorrow, what would you change?

Nathaniel (24:56): Right. No, I don't know that I would change much either, but, I think, carbon emissions continue to rise. Sort of all you need to know. I mean, at the end of the day, the numbers keep going up. One very dramatic shift has occurred, I think, which happened after I wrote the first version of the book, which is the emergence and, really, in 2018, the emergence, I should say on a broad scale, this is not something that started then, but politically, the emergence of a new line of activism, a new moral argument that was advanced particularly by young people and youth-led activist groups to understand the issue as not just a political crisis, but a moral crisis, and to speak of the problem in moral terms and to redirect their appeals from a language of reason, essentially, to one of morality.

One of the striking things about this period that I wrote about through the '80s is that the arguments that the advocates are making, people like Pomerance or James Hansen, are the same ones that, basically, continue to be made for the decades that followed, which is to say, "We have the science. We know what to do. We need to act as soon as possible. The sooner we act, the better. The longer we wait, the more screwed we are."

And, of course, all of that's true, but the assumption of that kind of claim, which is also the Al Gore claim, it's expressed in increasingly higher pitch over the years with more charts. But it's essentially that argument that goes from 1979 till 2018 is the dominant argument. And I think the lesson of that period is that that's not enough. It's not enough politically, at least in this country, to say, "This is the prudent thing to do. Let me prove it." That doesn't move the dial, actually.

And so the real question is what is necessary politically? And I think that we've seen a real shift politically in the way this issue is spoken about, the language that's used, the emotion that's used, and I think it's more honest, and I think that will have some, and already has had some, real political dividends.

Nathaniel (27:28): So if you were looking for hope, I would look to it there, that the language, the conversation, has shifted quite dramatically and really for the first time in the history of this problem in the last five years. And I think that was a necessary first step to a meaningful policy response.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the Biden's... The IRA is by far the most effective climate bill passed. I think it's connected to the fact that the politics around the issue have started to shift quite dramatically.

Ramanan (27:48): Thank you for that. That was super interesting and insightful. I feel better, just so we say that. I want to touch on Second Nature, briefly, but it's just a super interesting book, and you talk about a post-natural world. Is that a cynic's view? Is that an optimist's view, or do you want to reject those trait labels and call it something else? Do you view it as a good thing or a bad thing or a terrible thing or something else?

Nathaniel (28:16): Yeah, I think it's a realistic thing. I mean, I think this has been a conversation in environmental history for many years, that the idea of nature, of wilderness is a fantasy. That as long as human beings have been around, we've been interacting and putting our imprint on the natural world.

And there's a very strong argument, first really made by William Cronin back in 1995, that not only is the idea of wilderness and the natural world an illusion, but that speaking of it, idealizing it, in that way is actually destructive and that goes against our goals, that it entails a kind of fetishization of the non-human world that actually imperils it because it reflects a certain kind of class consciousness. It reflects a certain kind of colonial way of looking at nature.

And it also suggests that if humanity is poisoning the planet, then the only solution is to remove humanity. The logic follows towards the kind of radical, anti-human ideology, which of course there is... Some people in the environmental movement support that.

But no, I think what the book is about is it starts with the understanding that there's no such thing as the natural world. That every single square inch of land has been reconfigured by humanity, mostly recklessly, and not consciously or with any calculation. And so once you start there, then you have to recognize, you have to take moral responsibility as a result, I think, individually and as a society to, "Well, okay, if we are monkeying with every aspect of this planet, what is the most responsible way to live in it and to move forward?"

And so the book is a collection of stories, nonfiction stories about, first, people coming to terms with this reality and the implications of what that means, this idea that there's really nothing natural, that everything is some reflection of humanity and reflection of our good deeds and our bad deeds.

And then the second part is people trying to navigate through the weirdness of life now, coming to that recognition, and the strangeness of being in a world that is so deeply human and yet that we so often want to feel pristine or natural. And then the final part are stories about people who are trying to imagine more responsible ways of conducting ourselves in the future when human intervention will only be enhanced and more extreme.

And so all of the stories are ways to try to grapple with the strangeness of our current predicament and try to understand a way forward and to have...How do we preserve the values that are important to us in a world that we can't recognize or in a world that's increasingly a mirror of our own desires and of our own sins? And so they are stories about people who are trying to solve that problem.

Molly (31:33): It's interesting. I want to pick up on, and at least my set of questions with this idea of narratives, because you're talking about, we've now touched on multiple narrative approaches politically in your work. You've talked before about expanding these narratives. Certainly I do an outside podcast called “Everybody in the Pool” that's like, "Hey, enough problem porn. Let's talk about who's fixing what here." And I wonder what other new narratives do you see emerging and how important is that still in terms of changing the way that we talk about this to make it more holistic or honest or inspiring or whatever?

Nathaniel (32:12): Yeah, no, the work that excites me is not work that is concentrated on, whether fiction or nonfiction, is not concentrated on best outcomes or the worst outcome, not dystopias or utopias or even outcome-focused work. It's work about trying to examine what this new landscape is doing to us as people. So it's not work that is trying to give answers. It's work that asks questions. And so I see it the most in fiction, which wasn't always the case. Most fiction tended to be very dystopian. I was very careful in writing Odds Against Tomorrow that it didn't feel... I didn't want it to feel dystopian. There's a disaster, but it's not... The drama... You're in this murky terrain, and morally, there's moral tension. And so I don't know.

There's a wonderful Japanese novelist, young novelist, from Hiroshima named Hiroko Oyamada, who I don't think she ever mentions the word climate change or environment in her work, but she has these three short novels that are very much about these themes and about the weirdness and creepiness of the world as it is now. They're right on the edge of fantasy, and they're full of the same kind of emotions that we have of anxiety and hope and the uncanny.

Jeff VanderMeer is another writer who's very...His stories are very good on this. His book Annihilation was made into a movie, Natalie Portman. Who else? Amitav Ghosh is a novelist and literary critic who has written really beautifully about why our conventional forms of storytelling struggle to engage these issues on a deep level. And so he's written beautifully both in his fiction and in nonfiction about it. Terry Tempest Williams is another model for me who writes about the West and environmental issues, but is from an oil and gas family of people who laid pipe in the West for generations, and so she has sympathy for that view of the world as well, for the frontier spirit, even as she abhors what it's done.

And so it exists in this... People who can write about places where there's moral complication, where it's not black and white. Now, there are plenty of spheres in environmental issues where there are black and white. There are people who do horrible things, and there are people who are heroic, and I think that's really valuable to tell their stories too.

But that's not where I focus my own energies, and frankly, it's not what I'm most interested in reading about. I'm interested in reading about stories in which there's no... We're past the place in a lot of these environmental spheres of easy solutions. There were, maybe, easier solutions in 1979. That ship has sailed. Doesn't mean that we're fated to complete total disaster, but that often what we have are trade-offs. And so stories about the trade-offs that are difficult to tell are the ones that I find the most rewarding, where the outcomes are a bit more in doubt and the moral valence is a bit more complicated. Those I find are more honest, more sophisticated, and frankly more entertaining stories to read about.

Ramanan (35:33): As heavy readers, which is how Molly and I, in a fit of madness, decided to launch this podcast, we share your views that it's the complexities that make something interesting and entertaining to read. Okay. We have our last question, and you foreshadowed an extreme reluctance to answer it. We're going to ask it anyway. Do you have plans to write any more climate fiction? And even if you don't want to answer that question, are there any themes that have caught your attention recently?

Nathaniel (36:05): Yeah, I mean, I feel like you can't avoid it. I mean, I find myself feeling like if you're reading a book that's set, a realistic novel, say, that's set in the present day that has no awareness of this issue, again, it doesn't mean they have to mention climate change, there doesn't have to be a tree in the book, or whatever, but that doesn't capture some element of the dread, this dawning awareness of our predicament, the eeriness of living at a time that's the hottest year on record and the coldest year of the rest of our lives, that doesn't try to negotiate that in some way, it feels dishonest. It'd be like reading a novel written in 1945 that doesn't mention, in Europe, that doesn't mention the war. It's like at a certain point, you're kind of lying to the reader if you...

And so even if I don't set out to write like a climate... I can't really imagine setting out to write a Climate novel, capital C, but I also can't imagine writing a novel that doesn't reflect, at least one that's set in this, even one that's not set in this, time, I think, if it's written in this time, that doesn't reflect some element of that, of what is really the zeitgeist, I think, it would feel false. So I think it's unavoidable at this point. But yeah, I might also do it in a more directed way. We'll see. You can't escape it anymore.

Molly (37:28): Are you doing it?

Nathaniel (37:28): I'm trying.

Molly (37:30): Are you doing it in a more directed way? Maybe right now with the novel you mention?

Nathaniel (37:35): I'm trying.

Ramanan (37:36): Right after this podcast recording?

Molly (37:38): All right. Off the hook, officially. Nathaniel, thank you so much for talking to us. We're big fans. I could not have consumed Odds Against Tomorrow faster or recommended it to more people, not to mention all the other great work that you do.

Nathaniel (37:50): Thank you.

Molly (37:51): It's just been our honor to have you share your insights with us.

Nathaniel (37:54): Thank you. I'm honored. Thank you. I appreciate that very much, and it's really great speaking with you, and it's always a thrill to speak with people who are serious readers and thinking about these things in a serious way. It's a lot of fun for me as well.

Ramanan (38:10): So with that we come to the end of this episode of Futureverse. A huge thank you to Nathaniel Rich for talking to us about his novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, as well as his nonfiction books, Losing Earth, and Second Nature. You can find out more about Nathaniel and his works on his website, nathanielrich.com. We are very excited to see what he writes next.

If you have any thoughts on this episode or suggestions for future episodes, please email us at futureverse@substack.com. You can also visit futureverse.earth for the full transcript of this podcast and other information. Thank you for listening.


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Futureverse Podcast
Molly and Ramanan chat with cli-fi authors and imagine our climate-changed future