Getting through every day with a sound knowledge of climate change requires a degree of cognitive dissonance. Going to work, taking care of yourself, spending time with your family: How do you behave as if everything is OK, as if reality is trending just fine for the future of the planet you call home? Do you just throw up your hands and hope you’re not in the path of the next hurricane? Get drunk and find solace in the likelihood that you won’t be alive years from now for the worst of it?
Such matters are raised with incisive, ground-level urgency in “Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World.” Activist Daniel Sherrell structured his bracing first book as a letter to his unborn son, an explanation, an apology, a pledge to do his best. It’s both inspiring — Sherrell is an immensely talented young writer who cares deeply about his subject — and dispiriting: Sherrell knows this stuff backward and forward, and he isn’t hopeful.
Sherrell labels the climate change disaster — from the reliance on fossil fuels to the subsequent, alarming shifts in weather patterns to politicians’ reluctance to take it seriously — “the Problem.” “Even if you bowed definitively and dramatically out,” he writes, “the Problem would simply go on without you.”
But Sherrell isn’t the bowing out type. Even when doubt consumes him, he’s a worker. As a college student he helped organize a campaign to divest his university’s endowment holdings from the coal industry. After graduation, he continued organizing protests, writing press releases, otherwise working the media … important drops in a bucket that never fills and always seems to leak.
He laments “the sense of bearing witness to the same worn out travesty. Wherein the powerful sacrifice the vulnerable to the god of growth, then feign deafness when they cry out in protest. They are too poor or too Black or too far away to hear. We do not know them, and their plight is not our concern.”
In tone and structure, “Warmth” resembles James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” books written to beloved family members about the hard years ahead and why they might be worth living despite a rigged system. These are brave books built on an understanding that some battles are worth fighting, some boulders are worth pushing up the hill no matter how many times they come crashing down.
Some of the images in “Warmth” resonate like post-apocalyptic fiction, like this one, from Hurricane Maria: “a row of pastel-colored homes on a rocky beach, their facades torn away so you could see into all the rooms, as if peering into the innards of a dollhouse.” But the spell cast by this image doesn’t last long before it becomes a call to action. “We spent the rest of the night working furiously, making calls, blasting listservs, formatting a Facebook event, drafting a press release, buying candles, printing posters, lining up speakers, identifying organizations on the ground to whom we could direct donations.”
This tug of war between spiritual pain and elbow grease runs throughout “Warmth”; there’s never much time to wallow before the next set of tasks present themselves to be completed. To be a climate activist is to fight against the hell that man has unleashed on the natural world and against man himself, too focused on short-term financial gain to read the writing on the wall.
As you might imagine, it’s a maddening two-front war that makes concession tempting. “For me,” Sherrell writes, “this was a new lesson in losing: that it wasn’t enough to keep contesting your opponent, that you also had to guard against your own desire to hand them the mantle of inevitability, to say, simply, there was nothing to be done.”
And so it goes: the rush of doing important work well, the dismay of questioning whether it will ever be enough. “Warmth” should be required reading for anyone who questions the depth, tenacity, and critical thinking skills of millennials. (Sherrell was born in 1990). Sherrell knows he has a lot to lose; more pertinent, he knows he’s young enough that his children will inherit whatever mess we leave them. He is cursed and blessed with the perspective and the empathy to take a long view. This is one reason why he breathes fire at the short-sighted, those who hear what the scientists have to say, see the storms like something out of a doomsday blockbuster, and still shrug with apathy, greed, and ignorance.
Sherrell could have responded with a pure screed. Instead he’s come up with something more potent: an existential yawp, freighted with the ballast of knowledge and intent. Reading “Warmth” means accepting the challenge of caring, and perhaps even doing something about it.
Chris Vognar is a freelance culture writer and former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
WARMTH: Coming of Age at the End of Our World
By Daniel Sherrell
Penguin Books, 272 pp., $17