Writer and producer Christy George has been covering climate change in the environment for 15 years. She’s in New Orleans as a 2016 Flint and Steel Cross-disciplinary Combustion Resident at A Studio in the Woods. With the help of local partner Laura Murphy, of the Tulane School of Public Health, she is hosting conversations across generations and geography about rising seas and warmer temperatures. The project will culminate in a book, My Vanishing Hometowns.
Q: Tell us about why you are doing this.
A: I’m investigating the premise that people join social movements and change their behavior when the argument for doing that is framed as a matter of doing the right thing, or ethics, or morality, or justice. Those sorts of things and what we’ve seen in the United States is that people here are still somewhat in denial about climate change, particularly our political leaders. And so, the social movement hasn’t caught fire here the way it has in most of the rest of the world. So that’s why I’m interested in the question of why people change, what makes people make that decision to change. So, I’m looking at the ethical case.
So you think we’re basically a moral society?
Oh yeah, I think we are. I think we’re moved by morality. If you look at the Civil Rights movement, or things as simple as smoking, it was when the argument about second hand smoke came along, that I think people quit smoking, because you’re not just hurting yourself. Now you’re hurting someone else. So, I, yeah, and I think if you look at many, not all, but many social movements, gay marriage when it was framed as a matter of justice and equity, equality, then boom it happened. So, I think you’ll find that behind a lot of successful social movements. But I’m investigating that. That is the theory of social scientists, so I wait to be disproved.
And how are you investigating that?
I’m traveling to the eight states that I’ve lived in, around the country, and, because it’s such a great array of geographical places I can look at climate change, what’s happened there since I’ve lived there. Or what’s projected to happen later. So I can look at how climate changes landing on these different places, and I’m talking to people who live there, both about climate changing and about different ethical issues that are kind of embedded in the climate problem.
Tell us about your Louisiana roots.
I moved here when I was a baby, maybe like a couple months old. My dad was a reporter and I was born in Michigan, but we moved to Lake Charles and lived in Lake Charles for two to three years. When I was 18 months old I got polio, the day after I learned to swim in Lake Pontchartrain, so it was kind of a dramatic time. Consequently, I am looking at health impacts of climate change, and some of the ethical issues that are embedded in medicine and health.
Certainly we saw, during Hurricane Katrina, terrible medical ethical questions that arose, but there are also questions of climate-driven diseases, which I’m looking at. We have mosquitoes, and you have rats in the city and every other city, and they carry things that are, they carry West Nile and Donkey Fever, and Zika. And rats, you know they used to carry plague; I don’t think we have that here. But those are all things that the mosquitoes as the climate warms, or the rats, are able to extend their range. So they can both move north or they can move up in elevation. And so this is a great place to look at mosquitoes and rats.
How does the Studio in the Woods residency work?
It’s really fabulous; it’s incredibly generous. It’s six weeks I’m here. So I get to be in this place and experience this place again as an adult. I should add that I also lived here, we moved back and forth in fifth grade, so I’m not a stranger, and I come all the time. But still, to spend six weeks in a place, it’s like I moved here. I live here now, and that helps me as a writer. I’ve written everything I can that is just about the place and how it feels to be here. That’s the terrific value.
In addition I’m doing a project, with a partner at Tulane, Dr. Laura Murphy, and she and I are doing a series of conversations about climate change, with Louisiana residences who are affected by it. Some people who have gone through Katrina, but also a lot with people on the coast, and talking about how climate change is affecting them.
Some think climate change is a factor, but that’s not the only factor, and some don’t, aren’t convinced yet. But they all understand they are faced with enormous challenges from the subsidence of the land, its sinking, and the erosion of the wetlands, which is the barrier that protects not just New Orleans, but southern Louisiana, and it’s eroding very quickly. And then climate change, which is raising the sea level worldwide.
What are you going to do with this research? Is this going to go into My Vanishing Hometowns?
Absolutely. Yeah. The first chapter’s Michigan. Michigan, Louisiana, Mississippi, where I lived; my grandparents had a farm, and they nursed me back to health after polio. Texas, very briefly I lived in Dallas, and kind of came and went to some of those places more than once, but the next state is Illinois, where I did most of my elementary schooling. And then I moved as an adult to Boston, and then to California, and then to Oregon.
Are you finding the conversations universal or are you finding a lot of differences from area to area?
I’m just starting out, but I think I’m going to find that the conversations are somewhat similar. I think people don’t identify the ethical issues as such. Very little is said except about inner generational morality. You hear Obama talking about it, religious leaders. There’ve been books written about that particular issue. What kind of world are we leaving to our children, our grandchildren, our great-great-grand children? And that is a big ethical issue.
We’re a very short-term thinking species, us humans. Politicians think about the next election, business people think about the quarterly earnings report, and some say we are still worrying about the sabertooth tiger that’s right outside the cave. That our brains maybe haven’t evolved to think about 10 years from now. Twenty years from now. A hundred years from now. There was just a study that said that after 2100, which no one talks about, it’ll take 10,000 years to roll back the changes in the climate that are underway if we don’t change.
What we can do in our daily lives? And how are our daily lives going to be affected by this?
Well, you know, Al Gore said change your light bulbs, which is true. E,xcept that we’re not going to be doing compact fluorescents anymore; we got LED’s now coming on, which are probably better. I’m not looking so much into that, although I am looking for positive stories. But I will tell you from my experience as a political reporter for 20 years, call your congressperson.
And what are we asking them to do about climate change?
First off, take it seriously. That’s a huge issue in Congress. But second, there are local issues and that’s probably a good way to talk about it. You know, you say, I live in Louisiana, and I’m at risk. My house is at risk. And people I know in my community, their lives are at risk from some of the things that are happening. Wherever you live, there are local issues that are tied in. You know, gardeners are the first and bird watchers, people who are living on the land, or working the land, they’re the first to see and understand climate change. Ask a farmer; they will say the weather is changing.
What’s the ultimate tipping point that turns the population into awareness of this? Is it the water lapping at our back door?
The real problem is West Nile, which is now in 49 states of 50. Alaska is the only one that has not had a case, and I will say Hawaii only had one case. But still, it’s in Hawaii, that’s pretty amazing.
The Gulf Coast is washing away. We’re now talking about complete land loss. There’s a famous number, is it a football field is lost every 45 minutes? I haven’t verified that, but it sounds good. I think that the issue is it’s a natural levee, a place where the water washes up and there aren’t people there; it’s a safety zone. It’s just that that safety zone is gone.
I do think that people who lived through Katrina saw the dramatic impact that climate can have on our daily lives, in things as simple as brackish water sitting around magnolia trees and killing them. Gardeners having to plant sun friendly vegetation rather than shade friendly vegetation because we lost so many trees. Have you found a pretty sympathetic ear here?
Yeah, I think people are very concerned about what they see in front of them. And whether I am talking about climate change, and they’re talking about water in their house, we’re certainly talking about the same thing, and they’re very concerned and very worried about what they see.
There are people in Lake Charles who are planning to now relocate. It’s a significant move and a painful one. It’s a community. It’s a loss of your friends and your neighbors and the land that has sustained you through fishing and crabbing. I mean, it’s a huge wrenching thing to lose, as many people here know to lose your home. And that’s what faces the folks we been talking to.
I’ve been covering climate change for a while, and I am consumed by it. I think once you go, oh, this is an equessential problem, this is huge, this touches everything, you’re moved.
I don’t know that people reading this book are going to say, “Oh, well, then I’ll change my behavior, because it’s an ethical issue.” But it’s a way that I can talk about it.
I have found some hopeful things here, which is the piece that everyone who is talking about climate change is always looking for, because it’s such a grim, sad, awful, overwhelming problem. I went down to Port Fouchon. The port commission down there has been planting mangroves. Mangroves are endangered around the world. I got a tour and I saw that they planted mangroves. And we turned around and we are walking back and the woman from the port was talking to me about how they’re dredging more and more places for more and more ships. She said, “We take the dredge material and we build land with it, and we’re using it to build more land which is great, like right here.” And I said, “Look at all these mangroves; wow, you really did a lot of planting.” And she said no, they just showed up. So that I take that as a very hopeful thing, because it shows you that nature, given half a chance will step in.
Living through Katrina, I saw people rebuilding wanting to do it in a way that would mitigate some of these affects down the line, even with something as simple as raising houses.
That’s climate adaptation. There’s adapting, and accommodating things, and there’s fighting to try to stop it from getting any worse. I think both of those things are really important.
It [requires] a real shift in thinking. Our founding fathers, they’d be appalled. They’d be appalled. This land is God’s land. You don’t screw with it.