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The Power of Home in an Era of Climate Change

  • By AMS Staff
  • Jul 27, 2023

At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth by Madeline Ostrander

BAMS talked with Seattle-based science journalist Madeline Ostrander about her new book, At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth, which was named one of Kirkus Review’s 100 best nonfiction books of 2022. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic,, The Nation, Sierra Magazine, PBS’s NOVA Next, Slate, High Country News, Audubon, and numerous other outlets.

Why write this book?
It’s one thing to describe the dire implications of climate change in the abstract—and quite another to experience disaster firsthand. In 2014, fire ecologist Susan Prichard watched her community burn as the Carlton Complex Fire, still the largest single megafire in Washington state’s history, burned across more than 250,000 acres. “It was just horrifying to look down-valley and see just this wall of black smoke,” Prichard remembers now. Stoked by a heat wave and dry winds, the fire destroyed more than 300 homes, including some belonging to Prichard’s friends, and placed her and her neighbors in a state of emergency that felt at times like a war zone, she said. But Prichard came through this experience feeling “stubbornly optimistic.” She had researched wildfires of the distant and recent past, and she knew there were ways to manage flames, trees, and forests that could help protect vast areas of the West. 

I began talking with Prichard in 2017 after reading an essay she wrote for The Conversation in which she described her feelings about living through megafire. As a science journalist, I have long felt that we need more personal stories about climate change that can help people understand the stakes at a familiar and intimate scale—at home, in their communities, and in the places they love. I wrote At Home on an Unruly Planet to reckon with climate change as a force affecting all of us at home. The book draws heavily on a combination of climate science, ecology, social science, and the work of scholars in a wide variety of fields such as political scientist Elinor Ostrom, Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, and Smithsonian Institution paleoanthropologist Richard Potts. It is also a project of immersive narrative journalism from four American communities, and it carries readers through a set of personal stories—people who have endured floods, fires, and other disasters and then sought the answers and the resilience that would allow them to recover and face the future. An Alaska Native community works to move its entire village away from a collapsing stretch of tundra. A historic preservationist fights to protect one of the most historic cities in the country from rising seas. After a major oil refinery accident, a group of urban farmers begins to recreate and reimagine their industrial city—as a place of solar panels and organic agriculture. 

Unruly Planet also reflects on the emotional terrain of the climate crisis—solastalgia and climate anxiety along with hope. People tell me the book reads like a novel, though it is entirely nonfiction and fact-based—because it’s descriptive and full of narrative tension, vivid settings, and relatable people. 

Who is the book for?
I wrote this book largely for the “alarmed” and “willing,” but not yet engaged. The “alarmed” is the segment of the American public that is most troubled by the current and future impacts of climate change, as defined by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications—nearly 77 million people. This group can have gut-wrenching worries about climate change but can feel either paralyzed or uncertain about how to make a difference. In the stories in At Home on an Unruly Planet, you can find inspiration from people who are imagining ways to transform the places we live in and protect our homes and communities from increasingly dangerous circumstances. 

What obstacles did you face writing this book?
For starters, immersive reporting like this requires many hours interviewing, observing, and documenting. The most physically demanding research in the book involved multiple trips to the remote Alaska Native community of Newtok, in 2015 and 2019—initially undertaken as research for magazine feature stories. I had to camp on the floor of a school storage room with a range of other visitors—such as a census worker and a group of traveling nurses who were screening residents for tuberculosis. I worked through Yup’ik translators (local youth) to talk with elders, and during the editing of the book, my publisher supported me in contracting a sensitivity reader to make sure that cultural details about Newtok were accurate. 

Writing about disaster also requires patience and empathy. I needed to sit with people long enough to hear them disclose both their grief and their dreams—wildfire survivors, people who had lost everything to hurricanes, people who sobbed over the demolition of their houses as they relocated away from the path of catastrophic erosion.

For a book like this, every detail also has to be verified—from the color of someone’s clothing in a description to data about sea level–rise projections. I was lucky enough to receive a grant from the Sloan Foundation that allowed me to hire three skilled fact-checkers to comb through every sentence.

Beyond all this, I had signed with my publisher to write Unruly Planet just before the pandemic began. Then in 2020, I had to overhaul my research plans, again and again, as the world became quite unruly and unpredictable in response to Covid. But I had followed many of the stories in this book for several years, and I was able to piece them together despite constraints that made it more difficult to interview people in person and to travel. The pandemic shed additional light on how communities respond to crisis. Moreover, difficult circumstances sometimes open up new conversations. While the pandemic caused hardship, tragedy, and loss, it also led some communities to reflect on what’s most needed. For instance, after the price of oil crashed in April 2020, one community in the book (Richmond, California) launched a serious and ongoing conversation about retiring a major oil refinery within city boundaries.

What did you learn in the process?
I knew that climate impacts had arrived in every community across the country, but I didn’t fully appreciate how powerful it could be to take action on the local level. We don’t talk enough about this scale of impact. Often, the conversation about climate action is either individualistic—such as analyzing carbon footprints or driving or flying less—or focused entirely on major national or international campaigns or policies. But community-scale actions are big enough to make a significant impact, and tangible and near enough to give people easy entry points for getting involved. According to one analysis published in the journal Nature Communications in 2020, the climate commitments made by cities, states, and businesses could by themselves accomplish half of the emissions cuts the U.S. needs to make by 2030. Since the Inflation Reduction Act passed last August—setting up an unprecedented amount of federal investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency—organizations like Rewiring America are pursuing major transitions to electrification and renewable energy at the local level, all across the United States. Bill McKibben reflected on the power of community-level work in a book event I did with him in January. “There’s 140 million homes in America. That’s an insane number of furnaces, stoves, cars that need to be changed into something else and quickly,” he said. “It’s going to have to be done on a community by community basis. . . .You need to have whole communities buying in so that we can make this happen quickly and cheaply. That’s the work of the years ahead."

What surprised you?
I am trained as a narrative science journalist, feature writer, and magazine editor. But writing a book like this is an even more demanding undertaking. As a literary work, it gave me space to reflect on the story of science as a journey and a human endeavor—both the quests that drive scientists to ask particular questions and the answers that people seek from science. I was surprised by how different the writing felt from other pieces of journalism I’ve done—how deep, how arduous, and how rewarding.

What are the implications of this work?
My greatest wish for this book is that it will help individuals and communities start conversations about how to reimagine their economies, buildings, and infrastructure—and how to protect landscapes and ecosystems in response to climate change. In March this year, for example, I was the keynote speaker for a community conference on Bainbridge Island, Washington, themed “Our Island Home on an Unruly Planet”—along with climate scientist and adaptation expert Lara Hansen, a cofounder of Eco-Adapt who has also served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We started the day both with data about the climate predictions for the island and also stories about how communities across the country are responding to crisis. Then the attenders—mostly Bainbridge Island residents—held a series of conversations about how their community might take action. It was one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever participated in—and I hope the book can help galvanize more discussions like this.

The paperback will be available in August this year. The book often resonates with college students, and I have been exploring classroom applications for Unruly Planet, which could give students opportunities to talk about a wide range of issues—from social justice and sustainability to community-based research. I am currently working with contacts at a number of academic institutions and with the event agency Authors Unbound to reach out to academic instructors, colleges, and universities and seek ways to partner. 

Where do you go from here?
Journalists are, of course, generalists and always cooking up a wide range of ideas. I am continuing to report on the major climate policy transitions and climate impacts happening at the local level across the United States since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—building on the stories that appear in At Home on an Unruly Planet. I am also researching the process of reclaiming and restoring land that was formerly part of oil and gas production—abandoned wells, retired coal plants, and refineries. Finally, I am writing about climate grief and the emotions of living through crisis—and their mental health implications.

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