Telling the Stories of the Climate Crisis
Devi Lockwood’s new book documents the changing planet from the everyday person’s perspective and sheds light on the connective power of Earth and conversation.
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Originally, Devi Lockwood planned to travel for just one year. She had set out to collect stories from people around the globe on climate change and water. But somewhere in New Zealand, listening to story after story, she knew she couldn’t stop. She kept traveling, often by bicycle and boat, and kept listening. She talked to activists and climate scientists and random passersby, the movement of travel and movement of stories merging as Lockwood gathered first-person accounts of climate change. Those stories would become part of Lockwood’s first book, 1,001 Voices on Climate Change.
Deeply reported, vivid, and expansive, the book’s interviews shift the climate crisis conversation by centering people who have been directly affected, taking readers beyond the grabby news headlines and rightfully terrifying stats. Lockwood’s book grabs hold of the idea that it is stories, and the people who tell them, that shape and define our world. The book pounds and pulses with dialogue—conversations driven by everyday people. That part is important: Lockwood says stories from ordinary people redefine the notion of what expertise around these issues is. “While climate science is super important, the way in which it’s oftentimes talked about can be really inaccessible for the vast majority of people,” Lockwood adds. Especially regarding intersections of issues as nuanced as climate change, people are the experts on their own lives. Lockwood listens, capturing the urgency of the climate crisis, and the necessity of finding solutions in the grounded experiences of people.
Lockwood spoke to DAME about the reporting process, the necessity of centering people’s lived experiences, and how we talk about climate change. You can order the book here.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
This book centers on personal story and experience as the driving narrative force. Can you talk about the decision to use interviews as the backbone of the book?
For me expertise is lived experience. People are the experts on their own lives, and especially with issues as complex and nuanced as water and climate change. And also it is localized in terms of what the impacts are: the people who live in certain places are going to be the experts on the lived experience of that place.
When I was a student of folklore and mythology, we read this really incredible book by a folklorist named Keith Basso called Wisdom Sits in Places. The premise of that text is: he’s going around and talking with Apache people about place names, and how there’s a little microcosm of a story in the name that a certain place is given. So it’s a completely different way of seeing and thinking and feeling and listening to and understanding and redefining landscape. After reading that book and thinking about other parts of what I’ve learned, listening to people, it’s like: wisdom sits in places, right, and the way to listen to that wisdom is to go to the places.
I tried to really go to places that people think of as the places between places. [Big] cities can be fascinating, but that’s not where all the wisdom is. There’s a certain type of knowledge that only exists by asking people questions where they’re at. So I tried to do that to the best of my ability, while also recognizing that I am only myself and my experiences will be filtered through that.
Societal issues still often get discussed in buckets: economics in one, health and family in another, climate change in there somewhere. How does this siloing of issues and lived experiences impact how we talk about things like the climate crisis?
I think climate change intersects with every single issue. [You can, for example,] change where rainfall patterns are, and that changes what food people are able to grow, and that changes economic stability for people who live there. There’s just so many downstream effects to any issue. It’s really complex, almost deliciously complex, but I think that story is one of the best tools that we have to interact with an issue as complex as this. Storytelling is a way of communicating nuance and detail and values and image. I think using these types of stories in dialogue with climate science, I think it’ll just help bring more people into the fold, and my hope is that it’s more accessible.
Speaking of that accessibility, I want to talk a bit about your reporting process. How did you decide, out of all these stories you heard, which to include in the book?
I tried to pay attention to what moved me and what made me think; what felt new. And what felt like it was taking an emotional truth or an issue and pushing it just like a little bit farther than what I thought of beforehand. I tried to include things that I thought would challenge a reader and broaden their perspective a little bit.
Writing is revising. I definitely overwrote the draft by a lot. That’s where having friends as readers is so handy.
Is there one story or one place that has a spot in your heart?
The beauty of it is that there’s different things that move me at different times. We’re talking about lived experience and knowledge. I think one way of accessing that would be to go to the Arctic. I was really fortunate to be able to spend a month in a community in Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada that’s 1,400 miles south of the North Pole. This is a town of just a couple thousand people. When I visited, it was late summer and so the daylight was almost all day. The sun is kind of circumambulating the sky, and it would occasionally dip down below the horizon for a couple hours, but just sort of along sunrise and sunset that bled into itself.
While I was there I met a woman [Marie Airut], and we spoke in her living room over cups of black tea. She was talking about the life that she shared with her husband, who had passed away recently. They went hunting together in every season, and that was their main source of food [for the year]. She said: You know, I’m not going to tell you what I don’t know, but I’m going to tell you only the things that I’ve seen. In the 1970s and 80s, they would be seal hunting and the holes where the seals come out of the ice would be open in late June. But now, when she goes out hunting at the end of June, the holes are so big and the ice is so thin and it’s melting so fast, that it’s impacting their ability to access this food source. She blames this on increasingly warming water temperatures. Not only the seal hunting, but also caribou hunting has changed. When the water is warmer, the animals change their movement and migration patterns and makes it more difficult for these traditional hunters to reach this kind of central source of life for their community. I think that her experience of that change was one of many that I found really moving.
When you were writing this, did you have a certain reader in mind?
My hope is that people—who might feel like it’s an important issue but kind of a bit scary—might pick up this book and have a different response. Rather than feeling like, oh my god, climate change is so overwhelming, there’s nothing we can do about it, that that person might be able to read this book and see kind of where we’re at. My hope is that the “where we’re at” can be a foundation for where we’re going.
What were the biggest challenges and joys for you during the reporting process?
Every day felt brand new—I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I loved how spontaneous it was. It was kind of this chain reaction of randomness. I loved most the process of falling forward into the rhythm of other people’s voices and being able to just tune out everything else and be fully present for someone’s story.
I asked too many questions when I started; I was interrupting people. But I think I got better at listening and asking questions as I went.
The challenging parts… there are so many hard parts. My family had moved to New Hampshire from Connecticut in the time when I had been on my bicycle for something like two years, and I remember walking on the carpet on the upstairs part of the house, and turning to my mom and being like this carpet is more comfortable to 90% of the surfaces I slept on in the last year. So there’s a lot of physical discomfort of just being kind of sweaty and grimy on the bicycle. All of my things that I had with me were just what was in the panniers. Learning how to use menstrual cups—which are great, but you can’t always find chocolate all around the world, so my period coping strategies had to change. There was a time when my skin was just uncomfortable from using too many different kinds of soap.
But I think the good just so far vastly outweighed the bad. Even though it’s challenging to be in so many different contexts and sometimes difficult to constantly be introducing myself, too, even doing that really helped me solidify my story of self, in the same way that I hope that this book can be a way of understanding where we’re at and sort of as a planet where we might be going.
In the conclusion, you wrote about keeping the tradition of oral history strong by reminding people that their voices matter. What can we take away from that in terms of how we talk about climate with each other?
I would defer to some really amazing research that’s been done on this by the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication. They talk a lot about values-based communication, and that if you’re starting a conversation with someone about climate change—it could be any difficult issue—leading with an attack or a fact or an assertion, that can be a little bit off-putting for the person on the other side.
Instead, starting the conversation with an expression of a shared value: it could be that you and I both value family, or both value having safe water to drink in our community. Starting from that point of connection can then be a way to have a conversation about climate change that is less combative and more collaborative. Then, in the process of listening and specifically listening to people’s stories on climate, I think we just have to really remember that every person’s story is a gift and someone trusting me or trusting you enough to share that story is such an act of kindness. So I try to express gratitude to people when they share those stories with me, and, and I hope that I’ve done right by the voices of the storytellers in the book.
What else have you wanted to talk about in regard to this book that we haven’t yet?
One thing that I thought about a lot in the process of writing, but also reporting, this book is just how important it can be to slow down. I think that we live in a culture that values speed. I loved riding my bike really slowly. I would get to the top of a big hill and stop and do a happy dance, [or] take a little roadside dandelion and put it behind my ear and feel joy. There’s ways of listening in the same way, that rather than thinking, okay, what do I need to get out of this conversation? I’m thinking ahead to the next thing I need to do today. People really notice when they’re being listened to and being heard and when they’re not. If we can just make more space and time for listening to each other in a kind of analog way, that when we need to confront issues as complex as as climate and as water, and especially the two together that, that those conversations are going to be generative and lead in directions that we might not be able to reach otherwise.
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