Amy Seidl: A Voice for Resilience

April 1 [1852]. Walden is all white ice, but little melted about the shores…. We have had a good solid winter, which has put the previous summer far behind us; intense cold, deep and lasting snows, and clear, tense winter sky. It’s a good experience to have gone through with.
-Henry David Thoreau (from The Journal 1837-1861, edited by Damion Searls)

Amy Seidl

Remember winter? Here in New England, especially this year, the experience (good or otherwise!) of “intense cold, deep and lasting snows,” seems like a fading memory.

Amy Seidl has been tracking this change — not just scientifically, but culturally, even psychologically. Winter, she writes in her much-admired 2009 book, Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World, “is no longer the season it was a century ago…. The hard fact is we see far fewer periods of deep cold.” In that book, Seidl closely observes the landscape surrounding her home overlooking the Champlain Valley, and contemplates the effect of a changing climate on our senses and our inner lives. “What will happen to the world, to us,” she asks, “if a season like winter all but disappears as a result of global warming? Some have proposed that as our seasons begin to radically change we are becoming deseasoned, which refers to the experience of losing or skipping over a season.”

To grasp just how radical this shift is, try to imagine a “deseasoned” Henry Thoreau. I, for one, can’t. No winter, no Walden.

The far-reaching implications of this man-made shift — what it signals, for all of us — and how we will respond where we live, are what Seidl takes up in her latest book, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming (out in paperback this month). Facing the fact that “life on the planet has entered a new age, the Age of Warming” — which, though not irreversible, “cannot be reversed for many centuries” — Seidl looks at the possibility of adaptation and resilience, her two key terms, on both the ecological level and the level of human culture, seeing them as inescapably linked. As both a biologist and an activist in her community, she asks the pressing yet practical questions:

How will we, as individuals, communities, and nation-states, anticipate and respond to climate change in our lives? How will we build resilience into our social and physical infrastructure (transportation, energy and food systems, and our homes) to help us recover from its effects and adapt to what lies ahead? As importantly, how can we learn from ways in which the biological world is already adapting around us?

Seidl calls Finding Higher Ground “a hopeful book,” not because it runs away from the facts, but “because it not only tells how adaptation is emerging, it confronts the forecast of collapse.” She goes on, concisely framing her approach to the realities and choices we now face:

It is true: we face a turbulent  future. There is no doubt that there will be tremendous species loss, human suffering, and conflict that arises from compromised landscapes. Scientists tell us that the world will change beyond what most of us can comprehend….

In my life, endeavors to adapt to a warming world move me from despondency to motion…. I feel less vulnerable because the preemptive measures I take are not only empowering, they encourage me to belong to the future. In essence, articulating a confidence in our ability to adapt to climate change is a claim for persistence.

We are at a turning point. Realizing that our carbon-infused culture, economy, and lifestyle endanger human and nonhuman life, a transition to new ways of being is prescribed. While mitigating climate change is essential, adapting to and through centuries of warming is paramount. Fortunately, adaptive strategies and practices can be informed by the rich history of life on Earth as well as by contemporary ecological and evolutionary responses found in nature. In Finding Higher Ground the stories of animals, plants, and people adapting to a warming world express trust in our ability to adjust to changing conditions, even radical ones, and to establish a voice for resilience in uncertain times.

I spoke with Amy Seidl by phone from her home in Huntington, Vermont, where she lives with her husband and two children.  It’s worth noting, for those who’ve been following this blog over the past few weeks, that this interview took place as I was in the midst of my long and rather intense exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project (a shorter version of it ran at Grist last week). Seidl offers a different view. She’s climbing a different mountain — less dark, but no less realistic, and certainly more engaged. The word “withdraw” doesn’t seem to be in Seidl’s vocabulary.

-Wen Stephenson

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WS: We’ve had this pretty unprecedented spring here. How’s the weather up there where you are in Vermont? And how do you take these extremes on board, not only scientifically but emotionally, psychologically?

AMY SEIDL: Yes, well, we did see a high of 80 to 84-degree temperatures there around the equinox. And shortly thereafter we had 14 and 15-degree evening temperatures — so a difference of 70 degrees for some.

And the forensic meteorologists, what they do is run it through computer models, and they ask, what’s the probability of 85 degrees in March, in Vermont, if we didn’t have climate change, if we didn’t have this human-driven effect? And what’s the probability if we do? And more and more they find that these events, whether it’s the fires in the West or the deluge in the East, can be explained as what they call climate-implicated events.

So it’s important to be able to unpack it scientifically. But emotionally, and psychically, it’s so unsettling to be in the midst of these extremes, and to realize that, one, it’s unending, irreversible, and yet its pace and extent is controlled by our action.

WS: You are an ecologist, a biologist, by training?

SEIDL: Yes, an evolutionary biologist.

WS: In both Early Spring and Finding Higher Ground, but especially in Early Spring, which came out in 2009, you describe your surrounding landscape, and your own garden, and what you’re seeing. And I’m curious, since you wrote that first book, just in the past few winters and springs, what are you noticing in the landscape and in your garden?

SEIDL: I’m so glad you asked that question, because I’m surprised myself. I do keep track of particular species of butterfly and bird and plant, and one of the butterflies that has become a very strong indicator is this one called the Pearl Crescent. In 2008, when I was finishing the book, I wrote that I saw it on April 1, and it was nectaring on a little tiny composite — this bright, bright yellow flower — that was in snow, but that happened to be blooming right then. And the butterfly was out, and it was April 1, and that was three weeks earlier than the Vermont butterfly survey has any record for this butterfly.  This year, I saw it on the 14th of March.

This is all something we need to take into account over a long stretch of time — and yet.

Other kinds of things: when I hear the winter wren singing, for instance, which is a more complicated problem, because this is a migratory bird that needs to sense, somehow, these phenological changes. And blooming — we had magnolias blooming here, with that incredible week of intoxicating weather, and then just die. And so the grief of seeing — you know, you think of the magnolia as this harbinger of life coming to fruition, or at least the acknowledgment that the warm season and the growing season is ahead, and to have it cut short. I don’t mean to be overly funereal or poetic, but it’s a signal. It’s a signal that there’s non-resilience as well as resilience.

WS: And what has all this meant for your local farmers, this kind of dramatic swing and volatility?

SEIDL: What we’re seeing, with the orchardists is that if they’ve planted varieties — and some of the stone fruit varieties, like peach and cherry, do flower earlier — people are sort of playing a game. Because those same varieties do really well under warm conditions that are wet, like what we’re seeing in the summertime. So they’re hedging their bets. They’re planting some of these things, but then if they get hit, and we have these cold temperatures early on, they lose those crops. There were some orchards that already had seen some flowering and some leaf-out, and they will lose their crops if they had flowers and buds, because once they’re frozen they don’t come back.

WS: They’ll lose a certain percentage of them?

SEIDL: Yeah, two years ago, some southern Vermont orchards lost 60 percent of their crop.  So that’s really damaging. And we’ve been talking about this because, as you know, the flooding last year — 7 inches, 9 inches, that came in 24 hours — just took out the harvest for some of these farmers in the flood plain. And the question is, will they just plant again and imagine it won’t happen, or are they going to start to build different agricultural systems that are more resilient? And the orchardists are thinking that, too.  That’s really where we are, as part of adaptation.

WS: As an evolutionary biologist, you’re interested in adaptation in the evolutionary sense, non-human as well as human.  But in Finding Higher Ground, you neatly draw the connection between the kind of adaptive strategies that you see, as a biologist, and the role of human culture in human adaptation on a much shorter time-scale.

SEIDL: One thing I read as I started that book was a paper by Deborah Rogers and Paul Ehrlich about the Polynesians. When they built their canoes they were essentially engaging in a kind of biological evolution, because if they built something that wasn’t fit to the conditions, if it wasn’t seaworthy, then they would take a hit biologically. They would lose a good percentage of their population, perhaps. And I was struck, because Ehrlich published this paper almost as a warning, to say, if we look at human history, we see that our choices in culture have a distinct effect on our persistence and on our ability to stay in particular places.

I was really struck by that. I thought, OK, what are our choices going to be, as these physical conditions come upon us, that can move us in the direction of persistence? Or, alternatively, maybe maladaptive choices that send us spiraling in a different direction. I was also informed at the time by Collapse, by Jared Diamond, and other books — a book called Questioning Collapse, which took Diamond’s thesis and said, wait a minute, maybe there’s a lot more resilience in these communities than you’re giving them credit for.

At the same time there’s this thread, and I’m sure you’ve picked up on it, of a kind of fatalism — that we’re already doomed, that Collapse shows us how societies and civilizations end, that as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand show, this isn’t going to be pretty. I wanted to respond to that with this thesis of persistence. I could read the literature in evolutionary biology around climate change, and say, we have some really good examples of how nonsentient beings are responding right now. How can we respond, to be more closely in tune to these conditions, and of course to the predicted conditions, and move in a different direction? Cultures can respond to these signals, and develop systems and infrastructure and food systems and learning networks, etc., that are in keeping, that fit, with those conditions.

That became a very hopeful idea. You know, what if, instead of falling perversely toward fatalism, we moved and galvanized toward this idea of persistence? And what would that take, in terms of new sets of values, new behaviors?

WS: You write about a “transition culture.” Now there’s a whole movement that goes by that name, which originated in the UK with Rob Hopkins and others, and is now very much alive in the US and around the world.  And one of the things I’ve noticed in “transition culture” is a kind of uneasy relationship with technology.  At one point, you refer to the “hubris of problem solving” and the misplaced confidence that we can “innovate our way out of difficulty.” Yet there’s a lot technology in Finding Higher Ground. Solar energy. Wind. It’s not like you’re against technological innovation to help us get through. So, what’s the balance, for you, between reliance on technology and the kind of self-reliance you argue for?

SEIDL: That tension is what I’m writing about now.  It really occurred to me in Early Spring, when I looked in on my own behaviors. OK, we’re going to start planting these orchards, and these gardens, and reverting to 19th-century practices, to relieve us of this chronic complicity in carbon emissions and this moral dilemma we’re now faced with.  And when I say “we,” I really mean my family — my husband, myself, that’s how we felt we needed to respond — and others around me, people making these strong, pragmatic and yet morally aligned decisions.

At the same time, it wasn’t just a reversion to 19th-century practices that could relieve us of this complicity, but this expansive, innovative capacity that we have — if it’s driven by values that are consonant with what we know are the problems out there. You know, the fact that in one hour, the amount of sunlight energy hitting the earth’s surface could power everybody in the world for a year, all our economies.

That comes from Daniel Nocera’s work at MIT, which I’m really taken with. Because his thinking is not only great chemistry and physics, it’s based in a biomimetic understanding. How does life run? How do ecosystems power themselves? And how can we understand that first, and then understand what we might need, versus something less informed by biological and evolutionary processes? That’s why I really appreciate the kind of technology that Nocera is thinking about, because it’s housed in a deep understanding of the way biology works. Biology has a principle of “no waste,” and that’s where we need to head in this transition culture.

So, I live in this tension — responding with 19th-century practices where I can relieve myself of complicity by using resources differently, so they’re not as carbon-intensive, and flowing it into this innovative capacity, which I see in my brilliant young students and even my children, and I bet you see this in your own children — this font of creativity.

And I don’t mean to be overly ideal about it, because we’re going to have to keep navigating this forever. But we can learn from where we were — from this industrial age — and we can develop a post-industrial age that’s based on different principles and different engineering.

WS: You describe your home energy system — 1200 square feet of living space, a 3.5 kilowatt solar array, batteries in the basement, a back-up generator, etc. But you seem to make a point of describing how “normal” your home and family life is, in terms of energy use and the sort of appliances and gadgets you have, even though you’re off the grid.  It raises this question: Is solar about changing our lifestyle, or changing our technology?

SEIDL: I also write about the principle of “sufficiency.” In an increasingly full world, we have a lot more people and a lot more demand on resources, so we need to figure out a way, and a set of principles that are enacted collectively, to determine when to restrain. There’s always a level of efficiency we can apply, so that our energy goes further. But there’s also the need to acknowledge that we have enough — and that moving in the direction of excess endangers the whole collective. This is an idea that Thomas Princen brings up in his book The Logic of Sufficiency.

WS: Your community in Vermont sounds wonderful — all the folks you describe who are making the kinds of efforts you’re making, toward resilience and adaptation, and addressing carbon complicity — and I wish I could replicate it here in Boston’s suburbs. But, you know, for a great many Americans, the kind community you describe can come across as a sort of environmental counterculture — and most Americans don’t have a countercultural bone in their bodies. Do you ever say to yourself, “Wow, we live in a bubble up here in Vermont. Most of the country isn’t like this. How are we going to get all those folks down in Metrowest Boston (where I live), in the belly of the beast, to see the light?”

SEIDL: Sometimes I unpack that question in my own mind pragmatically, and sometimes morally. I mean, think back to the civil rights movement. What drove them, in that particular part of the world, to stand up and start making these changes, and to build a vocal minority to say that the culture needs to change, that society needs to change? It seems like there are pockets of the country right now — and I won’t say that they’re only liberal, because they emerge as communities find themselves vulnerable. In Florida, for example, if you look at the adaptation plans — and a lot of people don’t even call them adaptation, they call them risk-assessment or something like that — those plans are springing up where people have been hit, and they don’t want to be hit again.

Making a community less vulnerable is a bipartisan issue.  So we have an opportunity — all of us who see this coming down the pike fast and furious — to work with our neighbors and our communities, and to say, how do we build resilience and be adaptive to these effects? And then include these other issues at the same time, like new energy infrastructure that will distribute power instead of keeping it coming from the coal plant in the Midwest.  There are other conversations that can happen while you’re adapting to sea-level rise — or, in our case, flooding events.

The climate-implicated disasters that we saw last year are the beginning of a real turn for Americans, to see that it’s at our doorstep, and that making ourselves less vulnerable is something that almost everybody can buy into. It’s like civil defense.  And we should leverage that.

On the other hand, in terms of, perhaps, the exceptionalism of Vermont, we have great leadership right now. We have a governor who’s one of the only governors in the country to stand up and say, this last billion-dollar storm was climate-change related and we need to prepare for that. That brought a lot of attention to what was happening here. And we need to amplify that, and say it’s not just happening here, it happened in South Dakota, it happened in Texas with those wildfires, and we can show you that this will continue to happen. So it’s pragmatic, it’s political, it’s this bipartisan notion of buying in around security. And we can do that together.

WS: In talking about reducing carbon emissions, what you seem to be arguing in the book is that, even through our small actions, we’re bearing a sort of moral witness. And then, when you talk about adaptation, it’s as though you’re pointing out the moral necessity of adaptation as well — that it carries as much weight as mitigation.

SEIDL: I think that’s right on — the moral basis for adaptation.  As a mother who brought these two beings into the world, and I’ve seen ten springs with them so far, I can’t look into their eyes and talk of futility. I really can’t. To be cynical, or to feel without recourse, is such a surrendering.

And, first of all, that’s not how I feel. I actually feel that this is something we can navigate, and it’s an opportunity, as much as I wish it weren’t given to us. It’s an opportunity for us to come up with new ways of being.  In Early Spring I talk about the Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and a new version of human being.  I mean, the idea that we’ve eclipsed the next ice age, with our action, however much we didn’t realize what we were doing, shows the power of our actions on planetary cycles. So we need to own that, and at the same time find a way to be less destructive.

And if we think historically, when people have felt on the brink of atrocity — I’m thinking of fascism, or what happened in Rwanda — it’s so important for the individual, each individual, to stand up and say, I will not be a part of this any longer.  I can no longer play a part.  At the very least, I need to find ways to divorce myself from what I know is headed in the wrong direction.  So I ask that of my readers: Where do you have the occasion to stand up, and to start to divorce yourself?

WS: A lot of the things you’ve written about can fall under the term “localism,” or the localization movement. And yet, I wonder, as much as I believe it’s a good thing, if there isn’t a sort of two-fold danger in localism — of it becoming, on the one hand, another form of escapism, taking refuge from the overwhelming global nature of the crisis in local, small-scale, personal actions where one holds onto a sense of control. And on the other hand, a kind of survivalism — a circling-the-wagons, every-community-for-itself mentality. The whole world may collapse, but if we can just make ourselves resilient here, we’ll do OK. And I have to say, personally, I can’t bring myself to turn my back on the global community, my global neighbors. And that means not giving up on large-scale political action. One can argue, at this stage, that the only hope of saving our local communities lies in national, and ultimately global, politics. How do you reconcile that, or do you feel the need to?

SEIDL: Localism is the right impulse. Most of the data, for example, support the carbon-embedded nature of our conventional agriculture system, so to stand up and begin to divorce yourself from that, one of the things you can do is to use resources more locally. The danger is when people start to feel survivalism around that instead of community-building. What we’re doing here with community supported agriculture, and this localization movement, is to trigger the movement — so that the transition from a global economic structure that is brittle and fragile is replaced with something that is much more resilient, much more redundant and diverse, and less carbon intensive. It can’t devolve into individual security, or even community-based security, because we know it’s only as secure as the next place.

And then there’s this bigger morality: how do we develop not only empathy but responsibility for marginalized people in the world who have far fewer resources with which to respond and adapt, especially because they’re dealing with the legacy of carbon use that is predominantly affluent and Western. John Holdren, Obama’s scientific adviser, was the one who finally voiced that the responses to climate change will be “mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.”  The suffering — we hardly know what to do with it.  That needs to be plumbed. The logic of sufficiency comes back as a really good one to be talking about.

But you know what I really think? I think it’s an evolution of consciousness, in the end. There’s some really interesting stuff in neurobiology showing that our values are actually wedded to events in our evolutionary history.  And I think it makes sense for us, and maybe this will be biological or cultural, to expand our consciousness to include the fact that our actions have this kind of global effect, so that it doesn’t feel good — it’s a moral weight, it’s not a good life — when we’re not acting in adherence to the success of all living systems, not just ourselves.

When I hear myself say that, I think, “Wow, that is so idealistic, Amy.” And yet this time calls for that sort of idealism. You’ve quoted Tim DeChristopher, and he talks about love.  We’re talking about the fate of humanity. We need to look for different visions of the future, because it’s calling on us to do that.

WS: Of course, that kind of morality isn’t necessarily a new thing. You draw the analogy to slavery, in the book, and the abolition of slavery — and that’s an analogy I’ve drawn myself more than once. And I do think there is a real moral awakening, maybe not unlike that of the antislavery movement. And yet, if you think about that history, it was a radical political movement.  Our window of opportunity to do something significant on climate is closing fast. Maybe it’s time to do what it takes, politically, to get things moving faster. 

SEIDL: It’s a call to action, it’s our call to action, in our lifetimes. And there are others who feel similarly called — if you look at all the polling, it’s millions and millions of people.  And abolition and civil rights were never a full-fledged majority. It was a vocal and persistent minority that had moral reasoning on its side.

WS: I want to end by asking you about your student Ben Falk, and his work in permaculture.  You describe him as a “possibilist.”  I love that term. What makes him a possibilist, and why is that so important?

SEIDL: Ben is a designer of systems that are based on what he knows, ecologically, about the world around him. He sees possibility, because he sees everything almost as “niche.”  A niche that could be occupied and productive and even profitable, if we know enough about it.

WS: And he’s farming, experimenting with rice paddies, and so on.

SEIDL: Right. When Hurricane Irene came through, his farm saw 7 inches of rain in 24 hours — and a deluge is 2 inches.  So that was just phenomenal amounts of water, enough to wreak incredible havoc all over — a precipitation regime we’re definitely going to see more of with climate change here.  And yet when that water moved through his landscape, he saw one inch of water volume leave his farm, because his landscape was designed to catch that water, to spread it, to inundate plants that love water, rice and cattail.

He sees the future, as much as he can reckon it with various models, and he asks, what will do really well in that landscape? In a wet, warm, monsoonal, high-latitude landscape. And he travels to places like Japan, which have the weather now that we will have, and he learns how they grow things, and how they take advantage of that climate. And then he brings it back, and he starts experimenting.  He experiments with different varieties. Just think of the evolutionary diversity that is contained in a group of plants like rice, or peach trees, or this thing he’s growing called seaberry, which is very rich in antioxidants.  He’s just experimenting. His possibilist framework comes from experimentation, and he does it all under this concept of adaptation.

He just spoke with my students last week, and I can’t tell you how much, not just hopefulness but intrigue and interest came out of my students after he left. They thought, I want to do that. I want to be a part of that.  I want to apply my own skills to creating that kind of a world, where it’s resilient because it’s redundant, because it mimicking the way natural systems work, because there’s no waste, waste has been designed out. Waste is just nutrient for some other thing.

WS: So he’s awakening the “possibilist” in them.

SEIDL: That’s right. And lifting this burden — of how can we make this work in the systems that we have now?  The trick is maybe losing those systems.

WS: I think we need to awaken the possibilist in ourselves politically, as well.

SEIDL: Hear, hear.

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