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Weather by Jenny Offill is a work of environmental literary fiction about a woman named Lizzie who gets sucked into the world of climate doomers and doomsday preppers. This short novel (right around 200 pages for the hardback edition) was published in February 2020 and made it on to several best books lists for 2020, including lists from NPR and The Guardian. Weather is Jenny Offill’s fourth published novel, following 2014’s Dept. of Speculation, which was named one of the ten best books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review.
Weather tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a mildly disappointing former humanities student who works in a New York library. After reconnecting with an old college professor who’s in town for a seminar, Lizzie finds herself managing the email inbox for a climate change podcast called Hell and High Water. As Lizzie gets more and more involved with the podcast, traveling with her old professor Sylvia and meeting all kinds of eccentrics, her mental health takes a turn for the paranoid and conspiratorial.
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About the creator
Jenny Offill is an American author from Massachusetts and recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. The author of three acclaimed novels, multiple short stories, and four children’s books, Offill received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, going on to study at Stanford University, where she was a Stegner Fellow in Fiction. She lives in New York.
Official website: https://www.jennyoffill.com/
I’m Forrest Brown, and you’re listening to Stories for Earth.
[music: “Cold Descent” by Forrest Brown]
Welcome to Stories for Earth, a podcast about everything climate change in pop culture. My name is Forrest Brown, and I’m glad you’re joining us today for our discussion of Weather by Jenny Offill.
Weather is a short book, but I found it very impactful. It’s about a topic I know quite a lot about from personal experience, something I like to call climate doomerism. I’ll talk more about that in today’s episode and probably overshare a little about my personal life. But it is 2020, and I haven’t been around anyone except for my immediate family for months, so hopefully you can cut me some slack.
Stories for Earth is a labor of love, but I do sincerely appreciate all the help I can get. It takes a lot of time to read these books and write something that I hope you find meaningful, and it also costs money to host our website and buy new material. If you want to support further production of the show, you can pledge $1, $3, or $5 through Patreon every time I publish a new episode. I only publish one episode per month, and if I ever publish more than that, I will not charge for it.
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But enough of that. Here’s our conversation on Weather by Jenny Offill. I hope you enjoy.
I was a climate doomer
When I started Stories for Earth last summer, I was in a state of despair. I was constantly trying to find ways to do what I could to help the climate action movement. I started volunteering with a tree planting organization. I joined a political advocacy group. I was trying to get my employer to make our office more sustainable. These were all good things, but I was doing them all at the same time, spreading myself thin in a desperate attempt to control the earth’s warming. I was, frankly, spiraling.
Months later, after my mental state had thankfully improved, I heard about Jenny Offill’s new book, Weather. Weather is the story of one woman’s descent down the climate doom rabbit hole after she gets a side hustle responding to emails for an old college professor’s podcast, Hell and High Water. The protagonist, a librarian named Lizzie, attends seminars where her old professor speaks to concerned people from all walks of life. They want to know where they can move to be safe, what kind of skills they should be teaching their children, whether we can engineer our own bodies to adapt to a warmer world. The emails Lizzie fields are even worse, leading her to remark at one point, “I really hope all these people who write to Sylvia are crazy, not depressed,” and, “Environmentalists are so dreary.”
I certainly have been both depressed and dreary about the issue of climate change. I’ve been a person who, like Lizzie, could rattle off a list of the many ways in which we are screwed, livening up parties and social gatherings with the delight I seemed to take in accumulating knowledge about the end times. Perhaps you can relate to this obnoxious person too. Hopefully you, like Lizzie, can overcome it to some extent, or at least learn to cope with it. There are good days and bad days, but I think I might finally be on the other side of climate doom.
Weather covers a lot in a short amount of time. I was first introduced to the novel as an audiobook, which I finished in one sitting. A few weeks later I borrowed a hardback copy from the library and finished it over the course of several lunch breaks. But in this narrow span, Weather manages to reflect on the mundanity of everyday life, the slippery passage of time, the feelings of despair and hopelessness that can accompany an intimate knowledge of climate change, and the similar feelings many people had following the 2016 US presidential election.
Yet Weather is not simply an account of misery. It offers glimpses into how we can cope with the climate crisis psychologically without sounding desperate or corny. It’s a real look into the psyche of someone who is seriously struggling to wrap their head around the implications of a world that is, best case scenario, 2.7ºF (1.5ºC) hotter than the pre-industrial average. Some people have cast it as bleak or resigned, but I think it’s a brilliant, intellectually honest book with lots of heart. In other words, maybe exactly what many people need to hear.
“Weather” plot summary
Weather takes place in 2016, covering the build-up through the aftermath of the election season when the United States elected a climate denying, xenophobic, fascist president—Donald Trump. None of this plays a central role in the book’s plot (Trump’s name doesn’t even make an appearance), but it serves more as a chaotic backdrop to mirror the main character’s own spiral into paranoia. Speaking of the main character, we’re introduced to her as the anonymous narrator of the book, the would-be author of the many tweet-like streams of thoughts and stories that make up the novel. Later, we learn her name is Lizzie, a modestly disappointing former humanities student who works as a librarian at some university in New York.
Lizzie lives in a city apartment with her husband Ben, her son Eli, and, for a brief while, her recovering drug addict brother, Henry. She seems to live a life that slipped through her fingers, as she realizes that she disappointed her professors who all had high hopes for her. Our hero works an unfulfilling, routine job for which she isn’t technically qualified, and her body is beginning to turn on her with a recent diagnosis of arthritis in her knee.
Lizzie’s plight might sound like a typical one for someone at or approaching middle age. Someone who realizes one day, their life has not panned out quite how they’d hoped. But at the same time, it seems like Lizzie is okay with that. Maybe not okay with it, but perhaps resigned to the conclusion that this is just the way things are now and that it may be impossible to change it. And besides, it’s not like Lizzie has a bad life. She loves her family, she lives in New York City, and she has a stable, if unfulfilling job. Her life isn’t bad, it’s just average.
But Lizzie’s life takes a turn for the anxious and conspiratorial when an old professor, Sylvia, offers her a part-time gig responding to the emails she gets from her podcast listeners. The podcast centers on climate change, and it features interviews with experts in the field who typically spend their time warning of our impending doomsday triggered by climate collapse. For this reason, Sylvia has become a Doomer herself, progressively becoming more and more hopeless as the novel goes on. Working closely with Sylvia, attending conferences and seminars with the equally hopeless, the hopelessly naive, and the hopelessly out-of-touch, Lizzie herself becomes caught in the quicksand of the doomer-slash-prepper mindset.
Her descent into paranoia about the climate apocalypse climaxes when she almost has an affair with a French-Canadian wilderness survival instructor and conflict zone photographer she meets one night at a bar. Her husband and son are out of town on a trip together, and Lizzie leans into the possibility of having an affair with this mysterious man, even though she knows it’s a terrible idea. As Lizzie quips on page 161, “Sometimes your heart runs away with someone and all it takes is a bandana on a stick.” But just like a pouting child threatening to run away from home and never return, Lizzie doesn’t follow through with her potential affair, choosing instead to settle back into her comfortable, average life.
After Lizzie step back from the ledge and the dust from the surprising Trump victory begins to settle, she learns to take ownership of her life, or perhaps to reclaim control of her life from the feeling that she must rescue her family from climate change, her brother from drugs and his annoying wife, and her elderly mother who needs someone to drive her to a dentist. Answering a question repeated by Lizzie’s yoga instructor throughout the book, Lizzie ends with a beautiful realization: “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.”
Climate change doomers and doomsday preppers
One of my favorite dynamics at play in this book is the surprising yet rational contrast between so-called climate change doomers and doomsday preppers. I first heard the term doomer on Twitter, where it was then being used pejoratively by climate science skeptics to describe people concerned about climate change. I’m not sure if these people deserve credit for inventing this term, but I’m going to co-opt it for describing a certain toxic brand of environmentalist. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, I have been this person myself.
A doomer is someone who—like myself and Lizzie during our spiraling phases—is absolutely convinced that it’s too late to effectively mitigate climate change and that we all should give up and strap in for the apocalypse. In my case, I thought my family and I might go north to somewhere like Alberta where we would perhaps be better insulated from the threats of heat waves, vector-borne illnesses, sea level rise, and civil unrest stemming from a mass influx of climate refugees. For Lizzie, she had something she called her Doomstead, a kind of doomsday bunker.
To be totally clear, there are people who have real-life Doomsteads. Perhaps the most high-profile owner of one such Doomstead is PayPal co-founder, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, billionaire, and Trump mega-donor Peter Thiel. Thiel has a house in Queensland, New Zealand where he apparently intends to ride out the apocalypse, should he live to see it. And while it’s a slightly different take on a Doomstead, Thiel’s old business partner Elon Musk is dead-set on building a colony on Mars. In fact, this is the reason Musk founded his aerospace company SpaceX. While they are still years away from making it to Mars, SpaceX has now started a sort of taxi service for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Musk has been quoted at SXSW in 2013 saying he wants to “…die on Mars, just not on impact.” But whether it’s hunkering down in New Zealand or on Mars or in a doomsday bunker, it all amounts to the same thing— believing you can somehow survive apart from the vastly interconnected web of life that sustains everything, counting on your own money and cunning to save you from the terrible fate that awaits everyone else.
It’s unfortunately true that the people who are and will be the least affected by climate change are the very rich. This is true today, but it could become much more pronounced as the climate crisis intensifies. At least where I live, in the Western Hemisphere, we see this today as climate refugees flee north from Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras to the United States. We see it in places like the Bahamas and Puerto Rico when they are left absolutely devastated after powerful hurricanes pummel them harder and harder. Indeed, we see it also in the United States when hurricanes hit some of our poorest communities along the Gulf Coast, when inland hurricanes and so-called hundred-year floods strike already struggling farming communities in the midwest, when incarcerated people are sent to fight uncontrolled wildfires in Southern California. As meteorologist and climate writer Eric Holthaus frequently reminds his readers, “We are in a climate emergency.” In my view, the greatest tragedy of the climate emergency, the greatest injustice, is that it impacts the people least responsible for it and most poorly equipped to protect themselves from it the most.
It’s true that American billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates are putting a lot of leadership and money into addressing climate change, but it’s also true that the various economic and social systems that put them in a position to do so are also the ones responsible for creating a planet in need of saving. This is not a simple “capitalism, man” explanation for how we got here, but I do believe that what got us into this mess will not get us out of it. And the whole idea of building a Doomstead lies the heart of that mindset.
Obligatory note of hope
Near the end of the book, Sylvia succumbs to despair and becomes a sort of hermit—moving off into the middle of nowhere and telling Lizzie, “There’s no hope anymore, only witnesses.” Lizzie eventually snaps out of doomerism and rejoins the normal world, realizing she can’t just disappear like Sylvia. Lizzie has a son to care for, an elderly mother to fret over, and a recovering drug addict brother to constantly talk off a new ledge. But even if she didn’t have any of these people in her life, she still realizes it won’t do any good to abandon the world. Even if she can’t save the world by herself, she must do what she can given what she knows. Hopelessness is not an option.
And like Lizzie in some ways, I came to the same conclusion after my own bout of doomerism. In some ways, it’s the only option apart from choosing to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in an attempt to return to blissful ignorance, a philosophical position tantamount to nihilism, in my opinion. A 19th century German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche put it another way: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” (Beyond Good & Evil, pg. 89). Whatever you call it—burnout, hopelessness, despair, deciding it’s too late—this is perhaps the greatest danger of engaging in the work of tackling climate change. We must carefully guard our souls. Thinking back to our episode on Spirited Away, we must not forget our real names.
How we do this becomes the natural next question. The answer will manifest itself in as many ways as there are people, but I’ve come to believe it boils down to taking action. Lizzie discovered the same thing through her almost-affair, of all places. On page 165, Lizzie says about her French-Canadian wilderness survival instructor almost-homewrecker, “He tells me that at the wilderness camp they teach the kids something called ‘loss-proofing.’ In order to survive, you have to think first of the group. If you look after the needs of others, it will give you purpose, and purpose gives you the burst of strength you need in an emergency.”
We are not all meant to organize demonstrations in the streets or enter the scientific field to collect evidence of our dying home. But I think we are all meant to look around us where we are and consider, “What can I do to help?” None of us as individuals can save the world—not even if we happen to be Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. But if we all work together from many different angles, we will make great progress on preserving our pale blue dot. The hardest parts are taking the first step and not letting ourselves become overwhelmed.
Hopelessness is not an option
On the last page of Weather, there’s something you perhaps wouldn’t expect to see—a website link. The website is a creation of Jenny Offill, a site called Obligatory Note of Hope that features resources on how you can get involved in the climate movement, words of wisdom and encouragement from works of literature, and a list of inspiring individuals called “People of Conscience.” Unlike many websites today, Obligatory Note of Hope is a source of genuine positivity and hope. I encourage you to visit it, bookmark it, tell a friend about it. I think it’s a helpful place to turn when the going gets hard.
Weather may be a short book, but it packs a powerful punch. And as always, I would recommend you read it for yourself if you haven’t done so already.
Stories for Earth is written and produced by me, Forrest Brown. The intro and outro music is also by me.
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Thank you for listening, and I hope you’ll tune in next time for Season 2, Episode 5.
Book: Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
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Book: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
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Website: Obligatory Note of Hope
Article: “Jenny Offill on our Climate in Crisis” by Jenny Offill in Greenpeace
Podcast: “Jenny Offill: Weather” from Between the Covers with David Naimon