The California thirst trap

Good morning, and thank you for subscribing! I’m humbled by how many of you opened the inaugural edition of this newsletter last Sunday, and even more so by the number of new people who signed up over the past week. If you’re a returning reader, please understand that I’m experimenting with the format to see what works best, so things are a little different. They will probably continue to change in the weeks ahead. I want it to be good.

This is the second edition of This Anthropogenic Life. Newsletter writers usually tell you the date, for some reason. In the interest of fitting in, and in case you don’t have access to a calendar, it’s August 12. A warm and rainy Sunday here in Beverly, Massachusetts, where I’m visiting my sister, her husband and their three stupefyingly cute kids. Here’s the song I’ve been playing nonstop since I drove up here four days ago.

California schemin’

There was so much going on this week. A federal court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage in children. That infamous government report linking last January’s “bomb cyclone” to power outages? Bloomberg revealed that Trump officials helped skew the findings. China imposed 25 percent tariffs on U.S. coal. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), New York’s supposed champion against the president’s climate agenda, had eight environmentalists arrested for protesting fossil fuels in his Manhattan office. Don’t forget that EPA asbestos news.

Still, one thing stood out as particularly alarming. As the biggest wildfire in California’s history scorched the Golden State, President Donald Trump posted a series of head-scratching tweets linking the blaze to “bad environmental laws” that allowed a “massive amount” of water to be “diverted” to the Pacific Ocean. California fire officials called bullshit, saying they had enough water.

By Wednesday, the meaning became clear. The Commerce Department issued a directive prioritizing water for fighting fires over protecting endangered species. Agriculture already uses 80 percent of all water in California. Of the other roughly 20 percent, most of it goes to cities, where the biggest uses by far are lawns, pools and golf courses. Then there’s what little goes to conserving threatened ecosystems. For years, California Republicans have pushed to lift restrictions on using *even more* water for human purposes. Now, where Californians see a tragic climate disaster, the president sees an opportunity to deliver a partisan win.

Chris D’Angelo and I wrote about it here.

Jealously listing links for you to read

  • Zoë Schlanger wrote a wonderful ode to ferns for Quartz Obsessions this week.

  • On the headier side, Jedediah Purdy has an essay in Dissent that looks at when infrastructure becomes a trap and includes this wonderful line: "the metaphor of rising tides is now an image of selective catastrophe, not universal bounty."

  • Eric Levitz riffed out a comparably excellent line in his urgent New York mag piece on rising bankruptcy rates among American seniors: "Expropriating yachts lifts all boats."

  • Zahra Hirji of BuzzFeed News broke news that YouTube is adding climate information to videos by climate misinformation. This made purveyors of climate denialism mad. LOL.

  • David Wallace-Wells zeroed in on a portion of the conversation at a dinner party we both attended for the NYT Mag’s big climate story this month to add much-needed context to his New York mag write up of a new study on solar geoengineering.

  • After a tornado touched down in our beloved borough of Queens, Kendra Pierre-Louis of The New York Times discovered that comprehensive twister data only goes back to the 1990s, but the links to climate change are real.

  • If you haven’t already read my buddy David Klion’s Jewish Currents essay on Jeffrey Goldberg’s legacy, treat yourself. No one smashes the idols of our tribe like him.

A short interview with Jenny Kendler

Three months ago, I found myself trudging through the rain-soaked fields of Storm King Arts Center, the idyllic 500-acre sculpture park in New York’s Hudson Valley. In the misty, late-spring overcast, the afternoon felt dreamy, particularly because I had just returned from a two-week vacation in Vietnam a day earlier, and I was jetlagged.

The first few installations in the new exhibit I was there to see, “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change,” were underwhelming, even disappointing. Then, I wandered down a hill and found myself staring at a glinting array of 100 eyes, stretched out the length of a school bus, glaring back at me. The piece, entitled “Birds Watching,” replicated the eyes of avian species identified in a 2014 Audubon Society study as threatened or endangered by climate change. It was startling.

At a reception later that day, I caught up with Jenny Kendler, who made the piece. She’s the Natural Resources Defense Council’s artist in residence. Aside from a six-minute video of our conversation posted to Facebook, I never ended up publishing the interview. Jenny is at Storm King today for a day-long event focused on birds and her piece (if you’re in New York, check it out, it’s easy to get there on the Metro North), so I figured that was a good peg to share it now. I transcribed and edited the interview for length.

So what’s the story behind “Birds Watching?”

Part of the genesis of the project was this moment night hiking, where I locked gaze with an owl and this electrifying feeling of being connected in this bidirectional vision with this nonhuman. This piece … it’s printed on a reflective substrate, so it does just that, that experience of bouncing light back at you was thinking about reciprocal vision. So often in this age of screens we have reduced visions to this one-way, consumptive sense, which it really isn’t or shouldn’t be. We think of our haptic sense like touch, it’s bidirectional. We think of taste, it’s bidirectional, it involves us with the world. But somehow vision has lost that element, which really saddens me.

We’re missing out when we’re not engaging more deeply with the natural world and thinking about how our sense of vision is really the primary way that we can engage in this two-way exchange with nature. One thing that I think about a lot is that in the Anthropocene, it’s no longer acceptable for us to be spectators. We can’t be passive observers anymore. Human care has become one of the most powerful forces on the planet. So we have the hydrologic cycle. We have the carbon cycle. These are tremendous geological forces that control what happens on our planet. As we push them out of balance, our ethics, our empathy, our love or lack of love now has become one of the most potent forces on the planet.

So, with this piece, by asking people to think about engaging in this mutual tender look with a nonhuman, I want us to think about this empathy and how we can build a stronger connection to nonhumans.

Of all nonhumans, do you think there’s something particularly poignant about birds as an avatar for climate change and for humans’ impact on nature?

To me, they’ve always been particularly fascinating and intriguing. They’re dinosaurs. In some ways, they’re so alien to us and so familiar. We as humans put so much symbolism on them. We think of them as symbols for freedom or enlightenment or joy [so much that] we fail to see them for who they really are. That’s one of the reasons I make art a lot about birds, because I’m really interested in getting people to engage with that, to really think about what that interiority is. To not just see them as decoration or embellishment for our environment, but to realize that they are these alien lifeways that inhabit the planet all around us. Their unique, individual language -- you know, their song -- they’re not singing for us. It’s not music for human ears. It’s elaborate and intricate communication that we actually are only scratching the surface in beginning to understand.

The way the eyes look back at you is really haunting. What do you hope is the main emotional takeaway for people looking at it? Do you think there’s a different message for someone who subscribes to ideological climate denialism versus somebody who understands the science and is looking for a way to emotionally contextualize what’s happening?

What I’ve tried to build into the piece is not just one type of gaze… Is it a gaze of haunting, that we wish we could connect or wish we could understand? Is it a gaze of empathy? Is it a gaze of idealization? Is it a gaze of love? Or could it be that we feel castigated or accused by this gaze? It really depends on where you’re coming from.

Maybe it can be both at once. Certainly both feel kind of pinned and questioned by that gaze, and by our own personal responsibility as human beings in anthropogenic climate change, which is essentially creating a new sacrifice zone in the lives of these many others that inhabit our planet.

I would use the word genocide. We don’t want to think about it in that way. We think, “they’re just birds, there’s lots of them.” Each one is so unique! Many of them have been around on the planet for tens of times longer than we have. To think about just extinguishing these whole ways of being, there could be a look of accusation there. But that’s not the only place I want people to go to, because I really also think there should be this connection happening, too.

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