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Get to Know: Stephen Markley
And see how a novelist pushes for climate action
One of our favorite pastimes at The Instigator is recommending books that can drive climate progress. One of our recent favorites was The Deluge by Stephen Markley. It is so all-encompassing, I just had to talk to the author about his thinking behind this novel and the climate crisis generally.
Meet Stephen Markley:
Stephen, this novel strikes me as very ambitious. It spans several decades (2015-2040), includes many of the climate consequences we might expect over that period of time, and engages all types of climate players. So much happens, I find it hard to describe. What do you say when people ask what your book is about?
Typically I say something like: “It’s a near-future epic of the climate crisis told through the perspectives of a large cast of characters, from an activist to a scientist to a drug addict who couldn’t care less about the climate crisis.” Like any good novel, hopefully once people are immersed in it, they discover it’s about much more than they can properly summarize.
Where did you get the idea to write about climate change? Have you always been interested in environmental matters?
As a young person, I was pretty politically activated, particularly after the Iraq war began. However, climate had always been on my radar, and over the course of the early- to mid- 2000s I began to realize that everything I cared about — and really anything anyone cares about — none of it mattered unless we got this one thing right. That the climate crisis represents a turning point in human civilization and what we do, just in this brief window of time I happen to be alive, will echo into eternity.
The novel is terrifyingly realistic. How did you go about your writing and research?
It really was just a decade of reading and thinking and talking to people from as many angles of the issue as I could manage. When you’re curious enough about a topic, it doesn’t feel like work to explore it, and I was just a vacuum for ideas — and not just about climate or environmental concerns.
One aspect of your book that we really appreciated was how it didn’t seem to be written from any one character’s point of view. Was that your aim?
Yes, I always knew the novel would be several different, distinct perspectives and that these characters would overlap yet maintain their autonomy. I think there’s a pleasure in having different narrators see the same set of events through their differing POVs. It reminds the reader that outside of their own head, everyone else is processing the world in their distinct, dangerous, and beautiful way. It’s why literature, in my humble opinion, remains the most exciting form of storytelling or art. It can simply do things no other form can by rendering psychological acuity. I read War and Peace during the process of writing this, and I was just blown away by how contemporary it felt. As if Tolstoy was alive right now, and maybe I could send him a fan email — his writing remains that immediate — and all because he’s so deeply explaining the fragile psychology of these characters in a way that made me feel as if I was them.
The Instigator similarly tries to speak with and to all the different players in the environmental ecosystem. Could you offer some advice on how different constituencies (activists, mainstream environmentalists, CEOs, journalists, students, etc.) could best address the climate emergency or where they sometimes go astray?
That’s an enormous question and one I struggle with myself. The bottom line, I believe, is that we need to grow the tent, and that requires speaking to people we may not always agree with. One piece of the shocking epistemic crisis we’re all living through is that our information ecology incentivizes us, individually, to live, believe, and perceive inside our own bubble. Liberals, leftists, and environmentalists tend to be great at pointing this out about others but just as bad at understanding how the process works on their own brains (I include myself in this). The objective, I always try to keep in mind, is not to feel gratified by the good I’m doing or that pleasurable dopamine rush tied to my own innate self-righteousness when I post on social media. The objective is to win this war. In many ways that requires more frustrating, difficult, maddening, and patient work. I’d trade every TikTok and Instagram video ever made about climate for 1,000 people working to elect new Public Utility Commissioners in each state.
We’re often encouraging our readers to reach across the aisle and start a dialogue, but of course that’s not easy to do. You’re a great communicator. What advice do you have for talking about climate change?
I don’t know that I have any good advice. I think it’s important to be clear about the enormous stakes and just how terrifying this is, but also not surrender to despair, nihilism, or cynicism. We can avert the worst consequences, we still have time, and if we address it with the full force of our economic, technological, and social power, we will leave behind a radically better world on top of saving ourselves and every subsequent generation.
I don’t want to spoil the plot of your book for folks who haven’t yet read it, but you did seem to anticipate a January 6th-type event. That must have been weird to experience. What do you expect/fear might be coming next on the climate front?
Yeah, the entire experience of editing and publishing this novel has been to watch individual events come true in real time. The way I found out about the January 6th attack was one of the three people who’d read the novel at that point texted me: “How does it feel to be clairvoyant?”
Now I don’t purport to have any psychic powers. I’ve just spent a decade paying close attention to the trends, and it’s not difficult to see how these problems will metastasize. The three greatest challenges, in my opinion, will be sea level rise, food production, and refugee movements galvanizing reactionary politics. We have to think and plan for how to cope with these challenges immediately.
We recently posted a newsletter on David Eig’s new biography of MLK and pondered why the climate movement doesn’t have more leaders of his stature. Who do you think the great climate leaders are? What do you think we are missing?
I kinda come at it from a different angle. Making any one person the corporeity of the movement has immense downsides. They can become easy objects of derision, ridicule, and an excuse to shut one’s eyes and ears to what’s happening. We have an information ecosystem intent on building people to immense stature so it can wreak havoc on them at the first opportunity that presents itself. I’d trade big movement leaders for more anonymous people doing the patient but relentless work. Having said all that, in the course of writing the novel, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing James Hansen, who is more or less a singular figure in bringing this crisis to the world’s attention.
Do you have any climate-related content recommendations (books, podcasts, journalists, etc.)?
If you want to go on a journey of “What the Hell Should We Do?” you can begin to see the keyhole we need to squeeze through. I recommend The Big Fix by Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis, Short-Circuiting Policy by Leah Stokes, Bad Environmentalism by Nicole Seymour, and Greenwashed by Kendra Pierre-Louis. For me these books round out the shape of what actions are meaningful and what is virtue-signaling bullshit. In other words, why democracy is the path and consumer behavior is a chimera (warning: a couple of them may feel a bit academic or technical, but don’t be dissuaded).
In that vein, you should also pick up Electrify by Saul Griffith, which is basically Step One of what we need to accomplish. Elizabeth Rush has been a friend and an enormous influence on the novel, so I have to recommend the brilliant and beautiful Rising and her new one The Quickening even though I haven’t had time to read it yet. Finally, a book I found invaluable as I began to think about the enormous challenge ahead of us all was Thich Nhat Han’s Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. For those who don’t know Thich Nhat Han was a Monk and peace activist who was friends with MLK and who, right before he died, left behind this simple, powerful, and incredible book about what we owe to each other and our shared home in this moment.
Also I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the podcast Volts with David Roberts. If you’re trying to understand the way forward and how we go about the rapid decarbonization of the economy, this ultra-wonky podcast is indispensable.
That’s a great list. What else are you reading that you would recommend?
During the writer’s strike, I went on a fiction rampage, and here were just a few of the books I enjoyed from this summer: Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy, and George Saunders’s seriously-you-have-to-read-this-book-before-you-die A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.
Thanks, Stephen. It has been enlightening to learn more about your perspective. I loved The Deluge and enthusiastically encourage our subscribers to read it.