A Climate Crisis Master Class With The Award-Winning Science Journalist Zoë Schlanger

On Plant Intelligence, Eco-Anxiety, and What We Stand To Lose

  • Interview: Sarah Leonard
  • Photography: Heather Sten

The following piece is part of Earth to Fashion, a series of stories dedicated to sustainability in the fashion industry and beyond.

What has always struck me about Zoë Schlanger, no less than the urgency of her work reporting on the environment, is the exceptional pleasure she takes in nature’s weird genius. When the first fern genome was sequenced—they have genomes vastly larger than humans’—she got the little plant tatted on her left arm. If, as Thich Nhat Hanh might say, deep awareness and understanding of another is the path to love, Zoë is able to love the natural world because she really sees it. Hers is a master class in linking one’s fate to other creatures’.

Zoë is an award-winning science journalist and expert in anthropocene aesthetics, and occupies a rare position. While trained in the wonkiest of disciplines, she also stands at the forefront of our greatest international crisis: climate breakdown. If one thinks of environmental destruction as a sort of invisible war, with fronts of disaster and millions of civilian casualties, Zoë’s work is often to survey or excavate the damage, whether by reporting on species extinction, cancer caused by corporate polluters, or places where water is running out. When I spoke with her, I wanted to understand not just her work, but the experience of confronting daily, through the intimacy of reporting, a problem that’s almost too big for us to comprehend. (The word for depression caused by this situation is eco-anxiety.)

When I talk with Zoë, she is dressed for the part in Chacos and utility pants, a sort of environmental reporter uniform that has also become a trend of late. In her own SSENSE essay, she saw eco-chic as a fad that treads the line between nostalgic and nihilistic, consumed by people who may experience a genuine longing for a disappearing earth while the manufacturing of the clothes is literally destroying the environment. “It’s certainly retro,” she wrote then with wry foreboding, “which fits: It’s retro in the way actual wilderness is retro.”

Sarah Leonard

Zoë Schlanger

I loved your SSENSE piece on anthropocene aesthetics, and so I’m curious what you think of an industry that’s started talking a lot about sustainability, if it feels like greenwashing, if it feels productive, how to tell the difference.

I think as long as we’re in the business of making new things, it’s directly in opposition to the main project of halting and then trying to reverse the situation we’ve put ourselves in. Almost all my stuff is used at this point. My partner is actually much better at this and new things are basically taboo in our household.

One thing I’m really interested in is a lot of hiking or camping clothes that have become fashionable—all of that is not fast fashion. It’s not made to last one season, it’s all really durable. It’s so much better to buy one pair of hiking boots than forty pairs of Keds over the next ten years. My one concern is that, as with any fashion movement, one moves on very fast and so does one’s closet, and your gorgeous tactical gear is out. Although if it’s going to be sold on eBay or something, that’s not awful since it’s trying to resell old things.

That said, corporations are responsible for much of the mess we're in, so if they make drastic and thoughtful changes to their operation that meaningfully address their contribution to environmental degradation, that's great. But those have to be big, big changes. Sustainability can mean anything, and therefore nothing, so I’m very skeptical of any corporate sustainability initiative, particularly when it relies entirely on buying carbon credits to offset its emissions instead of reimagining its production entirely. I'm not here for cosmetic changes. It's not a perfect metric, but if it doesn't put a sizable chunk of the company's profit on the line, it probably isn't enough.

“It's not a perfect metric, but if it doesn't put a sizable chunk of the company's profit on the line, it probably isn't enough.”

Last summer you completed a project about water resources at the border, in nine parts, that took a year to report—it’s an incredible series. In a moment where a lot of people are depending on apocalyptic shock to make people care about climate change, you took the opposite tack. What is it like to be telling stories about climate change and sustainability that require time and patience while it also feels like everything is on fire?

I’m currently trying to write these more nuanced stories and redirect my focus from everything being on fire, because, as a person, that’s just a great way to fall apart. The amount of cognitive dissonance I experience reading these reports every day about species extinction and climate change and then living my comfortable life, it’s very much like Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War.” That I’m just gonna go home, bake some bread, go to the movies, while knowing all this is crazy.

I found this project by looking at this map that Yale made of climate perceptions throughout the US. There was one map that shows where people believed scientists were telling the truth, whether or not you thought climate change was affecting you. And it was colored in red and blue, and TX was just this red blob, but further down at the border, there were all these little blue counties and I thought, what the hell. And it’s the Rio Grande. People there, like farmers, could just see that there wasn’t enough water and put two and two together. So it was a chance to make climate change feel intimate, which is what it is.

When I was in Austin in October, there was a flood attributed to climate change. It shut down the water treatment plant, and they asked people to boil water, and then asked people to use less water. Bottled water was selling out, and if you don’t have a car, how are you going to go to the next county and get water? I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a scary environmental feeling. Access to water is so fundamental, and you don’t think about it until the terrifying experience that you might not have access to it.

You know, in that sense, humans are pretty vulnerable compared to other animals. We can go about three days without water and dogs can go about a week. So we’re very delicate. That story is a great example of how most people think that climate issues will creep up on them slowly, but often environmental change does happen fast when it comes to the things we really need like water or air.

The other thing I cover is air and water pollution, and toxicity. You’re seeing that everywhere now. Towns and cities are waking up to the news that their water is unsafe and maybe has been for a decade. I mean, Flint is only one example. I have Google Alerts for horrible things like water boil alerts or Legionnaires’, or PFAS, which is another class of dangerous chemicals popping up in water supplies pretty much anywhere. It can pop up overnight and it doesn’t matter who you are, I mean Martha’s Vineyard has a PFAS problem right now.

The consequences are fully understood but seem to include everything from increased cancer risk to cognitive impairment to, according to a more salacious study out of Italy, smaller penis sizes.

As with John Oliver and Snowden, dicks may be the best way to spark serious concern about the environment. That could be your new beat.

I’ll take that to my editor.

Do you feel like a Cassandra, being aware of so many appalling things that are invisible to so many people?

It can feel like banging your head against the wall. I know I’m putting these things out there, but I often won’t read new climate books because they’re sickening. I have endless empathy for people who don’t engage, even while holding that transformative change is necessary for the literal survival of life, and we’re not doing it in part because it’s a bigger issue than we can comprehend. That is the biggest challenge for people who write about the environment. I do think that the role of the journalist is to translate information for people, translate all these reports, rather than creating change, so when I keep my mind on that, it makes the job feel a lot less hopeless.

“It was a chance to make climate change feel intimate, which is what it is.”

How do you confront the sort of eco-anxiety that comes from being as aware as you are of environmental crises?

Until recently, seeing the broader issues made it hard for me to take the small steps that are supposed to help, like recycling. I did not recycle until very recently. I was like, I think maybe NYC recycling is a scam anyway, and every time you recycle something besides glass, the integrity of the object gets worse and we don’t know if recycled plastic is off-gassing because it’s been degraded by being mashed up and reprocessed.

But I’ve recently completely changed my approach. I think the most poisonous and depressing part of this is the potential to know everything and still not do anything. That’s an illness. It makes me feel ill. And I used to think that the small things couldn’t add up, and I sort of still think that, but I started composting because I realized that the compost gets used in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, which I live very close to. And I’m like why not just do it? And it’s actually transformed my relationship to my everyday actions.

That makes a lot of sense to me. I think I’ve often allowed a structural analysis to make small daily choices seem unimportant, but there is a zen to it. People feeling so disconnected from the natural world is one of the things that contributes to not seeing or understanding when that world changes. There is something restorative about the connection.

Restorative is exactly the right world. It’s restorative on a level that might not be measurable, but restorative on a soul level. I just read a book called Braiding Sweetgrass—have you read it?

No, but I just read about it in Jenny Odell’s great new book, How To Do Nothing!

That’s incredible! So Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist living in upstate New York. She’s looking at the ways that indigenous knowledge and science come together—botany is basically still catching up to indigenous knowledge about plants.

She has this chapter on strawberries and how she was raised to believe that strawberries were a gift from the earth to people and to animals. And she goes into what it would be like to have an economy of gifts, and to behave toward the world as though it was gifting things to you. And her framework amazingly lines up with a new UN report on how 1 million species are facing extinction, capitalism is the problem, and because our systems of agriculture subsidies don’t take into account the free services we get from things like pollinators, like bees, the financial calculation, is all wrong. These subsidies themselves are costing the planet trillions more dollars than they’re worth to farmers.

So if you take into account that everything you have in your life is related to a natural process, most often to plants in some way, it makes little things like composting for the Botanical Garden feel relevant.

There’s a lovely part in Jenny Odell’s book where she describes feeling mentally healthier when she’s able to go into nature, especially a very particular set of places in nature where she’s familiar with the trees, knows the birds, and so forth. It brought home how environmental protection was self-preservation. These things that most people would not regard as significant political acts, like learning all the birds in her neighborhood, actually transform [Odell] into a much more serious political actor. She has a genuine perception of linked fates.

I relate to that so hard. I’m currently working on a project about plant intelligence studies. Botanists have a fundamentally different relationship to greenery—most people walk by bushes and can’t tell them apart, and botanists call that plant blindness because whereas you can tell several small rodents apart—a mouse and a rat—there’s nothing like that on a large scale for plants. For most of us, it’s basically green-ness. But botanists see plants as subjects and see their diverse abilities to make choices and adjust to their environment and optimize their lives. So they’re experiencing plants as fellow organisms.

“I think the most poisonous and depressing part of this is the potential to know everything and still not do anything.”

Can you tell me about plant intelligence?

This is so fun. I have a fern tattoo on my left arm because the first fern to ever get its genome sequenced happened just last year. Fern’s genomes are magnitudes larger than humans’, so no one has been able to do it before. The first one to have its genome sequenced is this tiny little fern called Azolla filiculoides, and it’s truly the cutest little thing in the world, tiny tiny thumbnail size plant that looks like it has little green scales and it lives on frozen mass over shallow water. It was once partially responsible for cooling the planet after the last warm period. It grew en masse across the arctic and absorbed so much CO2 that it actually changed the whole climatic regime.

That got me interested in talking to botanists. So I’m working on a project that looks at the last 15 or so years in intelligence research as it relates to plants. A lot of things we take for granted like the word “behavior” or “choice”—if we use the common definition, plants totally fall within that and so some people are looking at whether to include plants in our regime of sentient beings.

Rice can recognize kin, will not shade its brothers and sisters and will not compete with them for root space, whereas if they’re planted next to unrelated plants, they will ruthlessly compete for root space. It’s fascinating. I mean, we know that plants can count. A venus flytrap counts to know when to close their trap so that they don’t close from just a leaf falling on them. Female plants can assess the genetic material of pollen entering them and choose whether or not to fertilize. So their mating decisions are very sophisticated, like, way more sophisticated than people.

So, hard as it is for people to see the environment clearly, there’s clearly a generational shift—the most confrontational environmental groups are being led by really young people, Gen Z. I’m curious what you think flipped the switch for them. Why can they feel this incredible sense of urgency?

They’re so incredible. I just think it’s really clear for kids, the same way that injustice is really clear for children. It’s before they’re put through the wringer of socialization and trying to be cool and the dream crushing that we all experience. Killing flies can be difficult for a child.

I remember jumping on a spider once when I was little and then feeling terrible about it—I still remember!

Exactly, and I think that applies to climate change as well. Greta Thunberg’s pieces are just so clear and in Davos she was like, “You people, sitting here, I don’t care about losing face with you, I care about the survivability of our planet”. Maybe that’s the only time in our lives we can actually assess the fairness of what’s happening and the rightness of what’s happening without being clouded by our personal stakes, what we would stand to lose. Just hearing these kids speak activates the ten-year-old inside of us that knows these things and has always known.

Sarah Leonard is an editor and writer in New York.

  • Interview: Sarah Leonard
  • Photography: Heather Sten
  • Date: July 24, 2019