Haunted By Futility or Saving the World: Writing Climate Crisis by Erica Watson

Over the winter, I spent some time driving to an undisclosed location in the desert with two anarchist medics I’d not met before. The person driving asked me and the other passenger, “What are you reading right now?”

You can count on anarchists to never open a conversation with a question about your job. And often, to be very well-read.

My answer at the time: Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom, which I said was thought-provoking and challenging, though I often grew impatient with Nelson’s fraught academic language and counter-culture name-dropping, even as I realized that people like me, who get a little excited by fraught academic language and name-dropping, are likely the intended audience for this book. The brilliant Alaska writer Corinna Cook had recommended I read its final essay, “Riding the Blinds,” in a conversation about feeling stuck in an essay I’d written on the collapse of the Denali park road and mortality. Nelson’s essay includes an interrogation of the effectiveness of story as a way to understand climate crisis, suggesting we might “drop the story” in favor of other ways of understanding – or, perhaps, not understanding, but reflecting – our moment in time. “Our brains may be hardwired to produce story as a means of organizing space and time, but that doesn’t mean that story is the only mode available to us in experiencing our lives,” she writes.

And I was also forcing myself to reread Ed Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, because I wanted to understand how a book so littered with racism and sexism still has a stranglehold on the eco-political imaginations of so many people I’ve crossed paths with, including, begrudgingly, my own (my best guess: a good story can cover up bad politics, and white supremacy is a hell of a story). The three of us were volunteers offering humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the desert; I did not wish to dwell on my reasons for rereading a writer who’d professed his desire for a border wall long before the idea had political momentum.

“It’s interesting how you seem very annoyed by the books you’re reading, but committed to them anyway,” my companion observed, which was one of the more astute summaries of my literary habits I’ve heard in a while.

The truth is, I’ve struggled to find writing that feels compelling both in craft and in truthful portrayal of the existential and experiential realities of climate crisis. This struggle is reflected in my own writing and editing as well: because I write about place, seasons, and the natural and human-built world, I write about climate, but often I’m not sure what I’m trying to say about it. Public discourse suggests I’m not alone. In a 2021 article, “Why Write? Towards a Style for Climate Change,” Maxwell Sater says, “Climate-change writing tends to be characterized by an urgency, with no obvious outlet. It is haunted by its own futility.” This feels deeply resonant: both the urgency, and the haunting.

I spent several years writing action alerts, blog posts, and press releases for an Alaska environmental nonprofit, centered mostly on stopping or minimizing the climate impacts and other harms of extractive industry to Alaska’s lands and waters. Those years were intense and fulfilling, and I have the luxury of saying that I never wrote anything in that role that did not align with my values.

However, a big part of my decision to leave that role had to do with the feeling that such decisive writing was reshaping my creative practice, carving rigid boundaries in my imagination that I wasn’t sure I liked. After composing countless sentences about what legislators or government agencies or members of the public must do, or listing all the existing or potential climate impacts of various actions or inactions, I found it harder and harder to access my favorite aesthetic landscape: the gray area. The ecotone. The imaginative realm of making meaning of the mundane. The kind of writing that, as Adrienne Rich wrote in her poem “Dreamwood,” “… recognize[s] that poetry isn’t revolution but a way of knowing why it must come.”

The need to make every paragraph an imperative trickled into my creative work, and it suffered.

To be clear, I will never suggest that writing can or should be apolitical, or that naming the causes of and possible solutions for the climate crisis – or any crisis – cannot be an artistic act. I think of a passage early in Lily Tuzroyluke’s historical dystopian novel, Sivulliq: Ancestor, which unequivocally names the antagonist and reaches forward in time to the continued legacy of colonial extraction: “The Yankee whalers breathe out disease like dragons. The Yankees want their oil, so they sent death to feast upon our flesh. When will the Yankees be fulfilled?” Though this isn’t a climate novel, and though I don’t write fiction (confession: I think fiction writers possess an enviable kind of magic), it is useful and necessary to read outside of my genre and experiences, and I find Indigenous apocalyptic narrative instrumental in thinking about climate change. As Mary Annaise Heglar, one of my favorite climate writers and thinkers says, Black and Indigenous people “have always had to live with compounding and competing crises—which means we might know a thing or two about how to deal with this moment.”

A passage I repeat like a mantra, which I learned from Appalachian writer Ann Pancake: “Always put your art before your politics. Good art can contain a political statement, but a political statement cannot necessarily contain good art.” This teaching comes to mind when I read Sater’s article naming the urgent yet haunted quality of climate writing. He goes on to say, “The first salient fact about climate-change writing is that it is about climate change. The second is that it is about writing, and its value has as much to do with the writing part as with the climate part.” I think of the countless pieces I’ve read, and of my own essays stuck in draft form, that commit first to a political statement but fall short as evocative, memorable writing.

Whether we are writing about the loss of an ancestral home to eroding shorelines or about noticing a shift in the arrival dates of migratory birds to our feeder, our writing confronts challenges of a genre scholar Heather Houser suggests might be “stuck” alongside climate action: plagued by descriptive “tics” or clichés. When we interrogate our literary habits, and the contexts that shape them, we write better. Climate writing, like climate action, cannot move forward in isolation.

(In Rich’s “Dreamwood,” the poem’s subject sits at a “cheap, mass-produced typing stand” made by Brooklyn Union Gas Company. The company, originally called Brooklyn Gas Light Company, was once a major distributor of natural gas on the East Coast. The company became KeySpan after a merger in 1998. Five years later, a KeySpan executive told investors that even if gas from Alaska is brought to market, it would not be enough to meet US demand. Natural gas is often touted as a “cleaner” alternative to other fossil fuels, though the methane leaked during transport actually results in more warming than coal. “Gaslighting,” of course, is the term derived from a film where a man lies to his wife about dimming gas-powered lights, causing her to doubt her own perception. These stream of consciousness associations are often part of my drafting process, and can lead to unexpected images and connections across texts and experiences. Does this mean that Adrienne Rich was writing a prophetic climate poem? No. But it might mean that the landscape of her poem shares space with other work that invokes the stark ubiquity of the symbols of extractive economies, and the possibility of imagining something else in its place (the map the woman sees in the stand’s wood grain). Sometimes the images and facts connections remain in an essay. Sometimes they are just things I briefly learn, ponder for a time, and edit out.)

I’m looking forward to delving into these challenges and questions, and those that other writers bring to our conversations, in an upcoming online class, “Haunted By Futility or Saving the World”. I don’t expect us to arrive at many fixed answers, but I hope we offer each other some versatile tools for our own practice, and strengthen our personal and collective visions for how our writing functions in a warming world.


Erica Watson grew up primarily in the Southwestern US, and has lived on the boundary of Denali National Park, on traditional Ahtna lands, since 2010. Her writing centers the intersection of human and nonhuman worlds, community, and climate change. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she was a recipient of the Jason Wenger Award for Excellence in Writing. Erica was a 2016 Fishtrap Fellow, and a 2022 Storyknife resident. Her work has most recently appeared in Panorama, AK Humanities Forum Magazine, and Cutthroat Journal. Register for her upcoming 49 Writers class here.

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