In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Pulitzer Prize finalist and acclaimed environmental writer Elizabeth Rush spent entire days on the eastern shore of Staten Island, New York, interviewing residents from the largely conservative neighborhoods of Oakwood Beach, Midlands and Ocean Breeze about their experiences and “the long, frustrating path toward recovery.”
She was shocked by what she learned: The residents had organized buyout committees to publicly ask that their homes be purchased and demolished and that the state help them relocate away from the high flood risk area.
“It was the clamor rising from the sodden side of the city’s only Republican borough,” Rush told the students, faculty, staff and community members in attendance as she delivered the sixth annual President’s Distinguished Lecture at Conn in April.
“I wanted to know what residents of these right-leaning, often climate change-denying or climate change-sidestepping, working-class neighborhoods knew that I didn’t.”
Rush explained how she encouraged vulnerable community members to open up to her. “I left all my climate change discourse at the door and decided instead to engage in a conversation, and more than anything else, to listen.”
The experience led Rush to write her 2018 book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Rush describes Rising as an on-the-ground investigation of the impact rising seas are having on different U.S. coastal communities where climate change has been most dramatic. Each of the book’s nine chapters opens with a monologue delivered in the voice of a resident about an event that woke them up to their vulnerability and what they decided to do with that information, she said.
“I think of this as a book about climate change, and in particular sea level rise, but it doesn’t focus on the science behind the phenomenon,” Rush said. “Instead, it looks toward people living on climate change’s front lines and asks, ‘What can we learn from them about the future that we share?’”
She added that writers need “to invite new voices into a conversation, to produce literature that denies the idea that there’s ever an official story or a clear linear narrative of a particular event.”
As she considered how to format Rising, Rush said she took inspiration from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich, which features first-person accounts of the 1986 tragedy.
An interview with Nicole Montalto, a Staten Islander who lost her father when their house flooded during Sandy, solidified Rush’s decision to open each chapter with a monologue.
“When someone speaks in the first person about the event that would change their lives, it’s a really powerful thing to be on the receiving end of that story,” Rush said, adding, “It was Nicole’s voice and her story that taught me how to write this book. I felt like there was nothing I could do as a writer to make her story more powerful than it already was.”
Rush embarked on a collaborative editing process with everyone who had a monologue, sending the copy back to them and encouraging edits.
She said, “If I didn’t have that collective editing process, I felt like I was just extracting the story from the community and using it to whatever ends I wanted. And, quite frankly, that felt too close to the kind of extractive practices that lie at the heart of the climate crisis. I instead wanted the story to travel back into the community and hopefully be an opportunity for agency building for the speaker as opposed to a denial of agency.”
The Staten Islanders ultimately succeeded in their push for New York state to buy them out of their homes and help them relocate, Rush pointed out. Less than three months after Sandy, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a voluntary program to purchase area homes at pre-storm prices, pledging millions of dollars in funding and financial incentives.
“I wanted to continue that momentum,” Rush said, “because I think that’s something that really scares us about climate change—we fear losing control. So, I think of these testimonies not as me giving voice to the residents. Residents have a voice; I just hand over my microphone.”
It was this sense of agency, not the flooding itself, that shifted the mindset of the residents of this conservative community from climate change denial to climate change acceptance, Rush believes.
“Once they got to choose how they wanted to adapt, and once they saw that climate change wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of the things that they loved most about their community, I think that’s when they started to be able to call out climate change as playing a role in instigating their move,” she said.
She added, “My work on Rising regularly reminded me that the right to speak about one’s shifting relationship with the environment and to have those stories heard and acted upon is something that ought to be extended equally to all, but often isn’t.”
Rush’s next book, The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth, releases Aug. 15. In it, she documents the voyage of 57 scientists and crew in 2019 to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, where the goal was to learn as much as possible about a place where humans had never before set foot, and that was believed to be both rapidly deteriorating and capable of making a catastrophic impact on global sea level rise.
Comparing the austere cover of Rising to the colorful cover of The Quickening on Rush’s final slide during her presentation, Olha Vasyliv ’23 asked during the Q&A portion of the event if Rush’s outlook on the climate crisis grew more optimistic between writing the two books, and if Rush could offer any comfort to those concerned about climate change.
Rush replied that as her understanding of the science grew, so did her fear and anxiety. But contributing to fieldwork in Antarctica allowed her to take action and helped alleviate some of those feelings.
“Get together with people you like spending time with to make an impact at a level that feels tangible, that gets you doing actual things and not just spinning out horrible scenarios in your brain,” she said. “Then you get to be a little bit of the change as opposed to worrying about it not happening.”